Managing and leading teams

Why this person is your most important customer

Last summer, I was attending a conference where I met an up-and-coming entrepreneur. We got into a conversation about building teams when she began bemoaning a situation she had with one of her reports, where he came to her and said, “I think we need a culture committee.” She encouraged him, “Great! Go make one!” But then she lamented that 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 3 months later, there was no culture committee. With a sigh, she complained that employees always say they want to do things, but, when given the opportunity, they “rarely rise to the occasion.”

She may have had the best of intentions but without truly understanding the root of the problem, finding a matching solution, and giving him the right tools, she’d probably left this guy feeling lost, and perhaps more disgruntled than ever.

One thing I’ve realized since is that if you’re a leader, your employees are your customers — customers of your leadership, your mentorship, your coaching, your direction. So if every employee is a customer, what should you do in a situation like the one I’ve described, and many others?

The customer is always right… sort of

When a customer tells a server they don’t like the food, they can’t be wrong. At great restaurants, they’ll receive another dish. The customer’s pain is always real. However, they may not be right about the best solution to their pain. In the early 20th century, people claimed they wanted faster horses, but Henry Ford realized what they really wanted was faster transportation.

The employee, like the customer, experiences legitimate pains, but they are not always right about its true source or solution. In my new acquaintance’s case, her employee may have said he wanted a culture committee, but the root pain he was conveying was that the company had a culture problem.

When faced with a complaint from an employee or a customer, great leaders seek the root of the problem, and then a solution to match.

Listen to your “customer”

You wouldn’t brush aside a customer’s complaint without evaluating whether or not there’s a flaw in your product. Take people seriously.

I find it helpful to actually repeat back what I heard. If I’m right, my teammate feels heard. If I’m wrong (which happens in a shockingly large number of cases), then they have an opportunity to explain to me what I misunderstood.

Investigate the root of their problem

Now that I’m sure I’ve really heard them, I dig deeper. Think of this the way you would handle a customer request for a feature: what are they actually trying to accomplish?

Interview them on the real source of their pain, and don’t be afraid to get real: “Tell me honestly: what specific culture problems are you experiencing? Tell me a story about something that happened that you wish had gone differently? It’s totally okay if I was the perpetrator — we’re all here to learn.”

Design a holistic solution to the problem

I try to ask myself: What “leadership product” can I deliver to solve their problem? Let’s say the entrepreneur’s investigation had uncovered that her report’s real issue with the culture was that some people were stealing credit for work, while many quiet heroes went unsung. She could then brainstorm possible solutions with him.

Perhaps she could lead by example. Or maybe he has some ideas for new processes that could help. Maybe, on reflection, he thinks the company could use a new tradition of publicly celebrating teammates’ accomplishments at the weekly all-hands meeting. Is he the right person to start the tradition? Maybe he’d like to, but doesn’t know how. In that case, the complete “leadership product” could include coaching him on how to start and organize this new weekly process.

Just as great companies focus on customer service, great leaders focus on employee service.

How to better ‘serve’ your employees

You don’t need to wait for employees to complain. Here are two habits for proactively engendering a great employee experience.

Tell them you’re at their service

Whenever a new person joins my team, the very first thing I say is “I believe my primary job as a manager is to serve you and your teammates — to give you the resources you need to do your best work, so that you can help the company succeed in its mission.” This is often disarming, and frees them from the burdens of keeping issues hidden.


Great designers create great products by deeply understanding what their customers experience. Just so, when I work with teammates, I try to imagine myself in their shoes.

For example, it turned out that my entrepreneur-friend’s employee was a recent graduate. When I was a year into my first job, if my boss had asked me to start a culture committee, I would have promptly executed this brilliant 3 step plan:

  1. Fake confidence that I could pull off what she’d asked of me.
  2. Go back to my desk feeling lost.
  3. Avoid asking questions lest I look dumb.

Good customer service = retention and recruiting

There are numerous benefits to internalizing this type of mindset as a manager, including recruiting and retention. When you view management as a privilege to advise a fellow human, guide them, and collaborate on choosing what they work on, you end up working with the very best people. The same way your product empowers your customers, your leadership can empower people to achieve their loftiest goals.

Like all customer relationships, the one you have with your employees is a trade. It’s like when you’re on a plane and the flight attendant says: “we know you have many choices when you fly, and we thank you for choosing us.” I feel similarly about the people I work with.

The best companies in the world are known for caring so much about their customers they do everything they can to help meet their needs. And that’s exactly what the best leaders do, too. The leaders who provide amazing service to their employees create a culture where those employees can provide amazing service to their customers.

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