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Employees First

May 30, 2018

Modern EmployeesCustomers First?

I have heard it so many times: “customers come first,” or “we are customer centric.” My observation is that this isn’t right. Employees have to come first. I believe that, for the most part, our employees will treat our customers the way we treat them. As Richard Branson, Virgin Group, says, “Happy employees equal happy customers.”

From the outside looking in, most people state that the Virgin brand stands for excellent customer service. Yet Branson insists on putting employees first and customers second — oh, and shareholders third. I find that to be enlightened leadership for sure. Of course we value all stakeholders, and putting the focus in the right place ensures we take care of all stakeholders. Based on results, Branson obviously has the focus right.

Not That Simple

As with most theories in leadership and management, things are easier said than done. What does it mean to put employees first? To my way of thinking it means creating a safe environment that affirms and promotes autonomy, mastery, and purpose (Daniel Pink, Drive). It is an environment that has clear values which underpin that purpose. And the organization has a leadership team that lives those values every day. In short, it is an intent based leadership culture. And building such a culture is very hard work indeed.


Humans are social animals. It is really easy for us to separate ourselves into groups. It’s part of our evolved DNA. It is likely that we each belong to many different groups — employer, religious, sport, political, neighborhood, educational, ethnic, etc. And those outside the group, well, they are the outsiders. So we feel free to treat them differently.

That’s why I like to use the word stakeholder instead of the usual separate groups — team members, leaders, managers, customers, vendors, shareholders, etc. Instead, why not declare that everyone who touches our company in any way is a company stakeholder? We are all in this together. We all have a vested interest in succeeding. Therefore, we all have each other’s best interests at heart, not just our own. AND, we’re in it for the long term.

By fostering a values-based culture that is respectful of all stakeholders, starting with our employees, we build a brand that is recognized by all as worthy of trust. Even if we have different opinions on how a goal is to be achieved, we can agree that we all come from the common ground of having the organization’s best interest at heart. In my experience, even our vendors and creditors will recognize the advantage in helping us succeed.

In the End

The final take on this is that our employees will treat our customers the way we treat our employees. It therefore seems obvious that if we insist on a safe environment where employees are respected and encouraged to flourish, then they will in turn, provide the customer care that will foster trust. And if we advance the concept that all stakeholders are part of our tribe, then we will develop a brand worthy of loyalty and commitment.

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