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Leading at the Rock Face
Knowing what it means to be a customer or end-user of your own enterprise changes everything.
When leaders sit where customers sit, do what customers do, and experience what customers experience, they finally begin to understand what their organization does, how much impact it has, and why the team matters.
But the only way to gain this perspective is not by talking with or observing customers. It is by becoming one.
Leading at the rock face means becoming physically and personally connected to your enterprise in the same way a customer does. To do so, every so often, leaders must engage the organization as a customer.
Think of it this way. If you were an airline executive and led at the rock face, you would, on occasion, book your own tickets online, check in at the airport with bags, stand in the security line, wait for your group to be called to board, sit in a coach seat, encounter fellow passengers, eat the snacks provided, and enjoy the service just as customers do. Nothing short of that complete experience can compare to what a leader might learn about the company and how it works or doesn’t.
The best leaders love being their own customers. They find creative ways to do so without giving everyone a heads-up and experiencing a production rather than the reality. When engaging as a customer, leaders get the chance to ask the questions, feel the frustrations, and perceive the organization as others do. No longer insulated by what they think or hope is happening on the front line, they learn to test many of the assumptions they make about how the organization shows up every day.
Good leaders in all walks of life can choose to lead at the rock face: Teachers can become students, coaches can become players, pastors can become parishioners, doctors can become patients, engineers can become end-users, and salespeople can become buyers.
There is no survey or focus group data that can show leaders what it truly means to be a customer. As a customer, leaders learn firsthand what needs to be improved, amplified, or corrected. By leading at the rock face, leaders also learn a lot about themselves. They start to grasp how similar or different they are from the people who use their products or services. And, if they are different, they can begin designing improvements for customers, not themselves.
If a customer is truly the most important person in any organization, then becoming a customer is an elevated place for any leader. From the vantage of a customer, leading at the rock face is both reassuring and scary. Things look wildly different at the rock face. Confronting that reality is what great leaders do.