The truth about OK leadership – you’re part of the problem

OK leadership is a far more widespread problem than bad leadership. How can you be sure you’re not adding drag at your organisation? James L McQuivey has a few thoughts.

This article originally appeared in The Nurture Issue, Marketing‘s third print issue for 2019

James McQuivey 150 BWIt’s easy to pick out truly bad examples of leadership. In every organisation you may be part of – from the parent-teacher cooperative to the leaders of nations – there are inept leaders who seem to have cajoled or manipulated their way into their roles. Despite how easily such examples come to mind, however, these egregious examples are few. And they usually get found out and moved out, especially under the microscope of today’s social media environment.

The more pervasive problem is the ‘OK’ leader. They are neither corrupt nor inept. They do not cheat the system or exploit their employees. Instead, they are just mediocre. Rather than sharks that threaten our survival, they are barnacles that add drag to our economic vessels as we try to sail the high seas of competition and customer obsession. And the problem is, if you look below the water line or in the executive washroom, these ‘just OK’ leaders have collected by the thousands.

Said more directly, ‘You, OK leader, are a drag on your organisation’s transformation.’ In fairness, you’re merely human just like the rest of us (not a barnacle, though I stand by the analogy). You have your flaws and skills, you have good days and bad. Me too. So please consider everything I say here in the spirit of sympathy rather than accusation.

Nurture cover 200You are a problem that you don’t even realise you’ve created. A former CEO of a major PC maker once shared with me a humorous anecdote of how he boarded the corporate jet to get to an important meeting across the country. The staff on the plane respectively approached him and said, ‘we understand that you prefer Dr Pepper and that you want it warm, with ice. We have everything prepared just the way you like it.’ His first thought: ‘Where did they get that idea?’ He didn’t know whether to be touched by their sincerity or annoyed that they were wasting cycles trying to cater to the whims of the CEO. It’s a trifling example. I have worse. 

I could tell you about the time I had a meeting with the CFO of one of the world’s largest media companies. Two weeks prior to that meeting, I had to meet with the SVP sponsoring it to go over the rules of conduct. There were words I could not say, data I could not share and concepts – notably, cord cutting – that were strictly verboten. That was bad enough. But will it surprise you to learn that, prior to the face-to-face with the SVP, I had to have yet another meeting, this time with the VP, who prepared me for everything the SVP would say, so that I would not be shocked by any of it.

I said to him (the VP) and her (the SVP) the same thing I will tell you now: when the effect of an executive in the room is so damaging to the flow of correct information – including informed opinions of an analyst you are paying to speak to you – that executive is a drag on the company. Worse than merely being ineffectual in overcoming obstacles, this executive had become the obstacle. Everybody knew it, and everybody had decided to go along.

That was many years ago. Guess what? Millions of people have since cut the cord, just as my naughty data suggested they would. That CFO was ousted within a few years – then the VP, then the SVP. I’m still here, but it gives me no satisfaction, because I can assure you that the company has not changed. And why would it? Executives – whether the CEO or SVP – have final authority over their employees’ livelihood. Executives are the immovable objects employees will factor into every decision they make. It would be irrational for employees to do other than treat you like an object. All you can do as a leader is choose what kind of object you are.

Choose not to be a barnacle

We know that customer-obsessed firms have higher revenue growth, greater customer satisfaction and stronger employee satisfaction than the average firm. But your enterprise can’t become customer-obsessed without customer-obsessed leaders at the helm.

Forrester OK Leadership

Therein lies the path from just-OK leadership to great leadership in our times. Instead of making yourself the object that your employees spend their time plotting around, planning for and adjusting to, you redirect the attention to the customer. And you show that you are serious by demonstrating customer obsession with your own actions. This is almost devastatingly simple to do. You just have to choose to be that leader.

Rather than obsessing about the beverages in the corporate jet or making it clear you don’t want anyone to bring up existential threats to your industry, you point everyone’s focus directly at understanding customers, elevating their experience, and improving their outcomes. We have identified five behaviours that leaders at the most customer-obsessed firms do better than others, from modelling how to use customer insights when making decisions to knowing how to collaborate across silos to improve customer outcomes. Leaders at the most customer-obsessed firms do this stuff better, and they do it more often. Their companies reap the rewards of customer satisfaction, employee engagement and increased profitability.

  • Model customer obsession. Senior leaders regularly use customer information to inform decisions.
  • Set high standards. Companies use customer metrics on a daily basis.
  • Recognise and reward obsession. Executives recognise and reward those who demonstrate customer empathy and advocacy.
  • Remove obstacles. Leaders can collaborate across different divisions to solve customer problems and improve outcomes.
  • Provide resources. Executives find budget when they need to fund innovative projects.

More importantly, we encourage you to shock yourself out of your leadership bubble, where people rarely tell you the whole truth and often cater to your preferences because it’s easier to do so. We recommend you assemble peers that you respect – we call it your ‘personal board of directors’ – and invite them to challenge you using an interview guide Forrester has prepared. You must do this because none of your direct reports would be foolish enough to put to you the hard questions we have prepared, such as: Can you put yourself in the shoes of your customers? When have you done this recently?

It’s not a trick question. But it also demands action, recent action, and it takes an honest peer whose paycheck does not depend on you to put it to you and wait for your answer – though it’s acceptable and even desirable if their esteem goes up when you genuinely succeed, as that will motivate them and you to do the right thing.

Nobody promised you that being a leader would be easy, just like they never promised you that the stock options would be easy to spend. But since you are being paid well, you owe it to everybody to do well. Do well by the customer, and you will have left just-OK leadership far behind in the wake of a faster-moving enterprise.

James L McQuivey is VP and principal analyst at Forrester.

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Image credit: Charles 🇵🇭