Growth Leadership Mindset Reflection Self awareness

Why better starts with who

Better business needs the right people with the right vision and the right values. People who know who they are and know that better starts with them.

I write about business. I write for leaders who are in business, leading teams to do business. I love conversations with leaders and understanding how they think, act, and lead. One of my favorite questions to ask leaders to get to know them is the question:

What is your business about?

Is it about making money? Is it about growing people and yourself? Is it about serving your customers’ needs and wants? Is it about making a difference in the world we live in? Or is it all of the above? What would your answer be?

I led a leadership workshop for about thirty talents at an insurance company a few years ago. I asked them what the primary purpose of their company was. I got two answers: 1) to make money, and 2) to provide our customers with security in their lives. What would your answer be if you were leading an insurance company?

The question resulted in an intense debate, where both groups advocating their perspective were trying to convince the other group they were right. Both groups had a point. If the company didn’t make money, it would not exist and would be unable to sell insurance products providing security. And, if the company did not provide customers with security, it would not make money. It’s a chicken and egg story. The better question is: 

What would be your primary purpose? Are you first thinking about the bottom line or the well-being of your customers?

I spent most of my career in the supermarket business, managing both store operations and several HR functions. As a supermarket executive, you get reminded daily, almost first thing in the morning, that making money matters. Many store operators can’t wait for their sales reports to come in and check their performance. I’ve witnessed colleagues who could not have a regular dialogue at breakfast with me because they were anxiously awaiting their sales performance of yesterday. Their watch indicated the time mattered more to them than their conversation partner (i.e., me) writing in front of them.

They were conditioned by the company’s culture to put their sales numbers ahead of everything else.

If I asked them their primary purpose, the answer would have been to drive sales. Sales numbers are lagging performance indicators. They result from something else, i.e., the number of transactions you make at what price. Customers drive transactions. Customers are driven by their needs and their choice of supermarket. Their needs are based on their personal situation. Their selection of supermarkets is driven by the ‘quality’ of the supermarket chain. Customers vote with their feet, and they decide whether they return or not, providing you with their money.

Every beep of a product scanned in a supermarket tells a story.

The story of a human being who decided to buy groceries in your store? For herself? For her family? For regular daily meals? For a special occasion? Or just a little snack in between? How connected are you to that story? Have you ever even noticed the scanning beeps and thought about them? Do you even care? 

While working in the United States, being responsible for over 250 supermarkets, I visited my stores frequently. Stores and their ecosystem are the livelihoods of any brick-and-mortar retailer. With the work of thousands of store employees, people working at the main office (we called it the store support center) get their paychecks. Many ‘overhead’ associates tend to forget that. They think the stores are there for them, while, in fact, they are there for the stores.

I had two types of store managers, roughly speaking. Those who were with their people and clients most of the day and those who spent more time in their office trying to please their central office colleagues by keeping up with hundreds of emails and operational notifications. The first category of store managers made it a point to ensure they got to know every new associate well on their first day of work. The second category couldn’t care less. An administrative person did the hiring.

Guess which stores were, in general, more successful?

We were on a journey to change the culture, from the highest-paid executive to every store associate. A journey that would take several years but resulted in sustainable growth for significantly more years. We started by collecting stories. Stories of role models who were the personification of the new culture we were looking for. Leaders who behaved according to our values and who helped their people grow. Leaders who empower and inspire their people to do the right thing for their customers. 

Because they knew that when they would make a difference for their people, their people would make a difference for their customers, and the customers would return. Giving us more of their business. 

Better starts with who you are as a person and as a leader.

The model is really that simple. Business is that simple. It’s just not that easy to execute consistently everywhere. One of those stories we collected was of a store manager who interviewed all new associates on their first day of work, ensuring they felt welcome, knew what was expected of them, and knew what to do on their first day of work. These new associates felt welcome and appreciated and knew what to do next. This is different from the regular onboarding experience at a regular company.

Before this store manager would send the new hire to work, he would take them out of the parking lot, walk for 100 meters, turn around, and make them look at the company’s logo on the building’s facade. Then he said:

“I work twenty years for this company and am proud to be part of this family. You may work here for two months, two years, or twenty years like me. Whatever it is, make sure that you do your best every day to help our customers get what they need. We’re happy to have you. Good luck, and ask for help when you need it.”

Those are the leaders we need. Those are the leaders who make the difference. 

It takes time to build a culture like this. It takes investment, training, and patience to make it happen sustainably across an organization and all functions. There are no shortcuts here. The leaders of the company described above can testify to that. The only way to make it happen is to decide to start and then do it with rigor and determination. But most of all, it needs the right people with the right vision and the right values. People who know who they are and know that better starts with them.

Your turn: Who are you? What do you believe in?


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Erikjan Lantink
Business & Leadership Coach

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