Perhaps the oldest conundrum of all is — which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Perhaps the oldest in the minds of savvy leaders is what is more important, my Customers or my Employees?
Many wonderful books have been written about putting the Customer first, and in 1983, Tom Peters and Bob Waterman (in In Search of Excellence) made Stew Leonard Jr., the president and CEO of supermarket chain Stew Leonard's, world famous for the two rules you read in the image in this article. The idea is that we are in business to serve our Customers and so they should be our primary focus.
It is hard to argue with that premise.
Many other equally compelling books have been written extolling the virtues of putting your Employees first. One well-written description of this contradictory premise comes from the statement of beliefs of The Container Store, a Fortune 100 Best Places to Work organization. “Businesses are comprised of an interdependent set of stakeholders — employees, customers, vendors, the community and shareholders. At The Container Store, we firmly believe our employee is the #1stakeholder. In doing so, employees take better care of customers and ultimately the shareholders experience greater benefit from this approach to business than if the company focuses myopically on the shareholders alone.”
Again, it is hard to argue with this premise as well.
Feels kind of chicken and egg-like, right?
So where does that leave us as leaders — who is #1?
The answer is, in part, in the wise quotation from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
How about we consider them co-champions and treat them both as such?
Rather than trying to decide where to put your ultimate focus, where to pin your strategy and what you build as your biggest strength, why not think of the bond between Customer and Employee (or if you prefer Employee and Customer) as a self-reinforcing loop?
If Employees aren’t well served, they can’t serve Customers at the highest levels. And if Customers aren’t served well so they return regularly, Employees won’t have a job (or the resources won’t exist to serve them best).
As a leader, wherever you sit in the organization in terms of level of authority or department, you can focus your attention on your new twin engine of improved organizational performance.
As you finish reading, ask yourself what actions you can take today to put Customers and Employees at the top of your priority list. Then, as you are taking daily actions based on this insight, as soon as you can, think about the question more strategically and from a long-term view.
Ask yourself, then ask your Employees and your Customers as well. The ideas will flow and the energy will grow.
Without eggs there are no chickens and without chickens there are no eggs. I don’t know about you, but I love both. Why not take the same approach inside your organization?
A Final Note: For many years I’ve capitalized the word Customer (or Client) as a way to remind myself of their importance. Starting today, as a result of writing this, I am now going to capitalize the word Employee as well. Important indeed.