Listen Up, Internet CEOs (and Google too)

I’m speaking this month at several private CEO summits in the Silicon Valley area as well as at companies like Google and Apple.

As I prepare this round of Customers Included talks, I find myself thinking about the people I’ve talked to just in the last few weeks and how they’ve changed and emboldened me.

I’m talking about two housekeepers, a taxi driver, a flight attendant, and the CEO of a burger chain.

What do Randy Garutti, the CEO of Shake Shack (pictured above with me at their recent pre-IPO “roadshow”), a Boston taxi driver, a Delta flight attendant, and two housekeepers have in common – and what the heck can Internet CEOs learn from them?

They are all grateful and people-oriented. They serve. They listen. To everyone.

The Taxi Driver

I wrote two weeks ago about the Boston taxi driver (pictured above) who changed me – that column got tremendous feedback. His story of rise and fall (from car dealership owner to struggling taxi driver) touched everyone. But I think what really resonated with people is his humility and gratitude. This is a man who lost everything and has every reason to be bitter but instead recognizes that his arrogance and greed had ill-served him. And is now grateful to be alive and with his family and is one of the best, most service-oriented taxi drivers I’ve had.

The Flight Attendant

On my recent flight from New York to San Francisco I met a Delta flight attendant who has been flying for 36 years. When I asked her to tell me what it’s like to have flown for so many years, she said, “I’m filled with gratitude.”

And she was not only grateful but she radiated warmth and inspired those around her – other passengers as well as other flight attendants.

At one point, I sat with her on her break and asked her to tell me more about years of flying. She told me stories including a funny and sad 9/11 tale. She asked me not to write about those stories (and not to take her picture) and so I agreed but I did tell her that I was going to share with the world the experience of meeting this unusual flight attendant.

To top it all off, at the end of the flight, she presented me with a bookmark that she had painted and signed (pictured above). On the back, she wrote a short but lovely note thanking me for making her day pleasant (I assure you it was the other way around).

Flight attendants have somewhat rough jobs. And in 36 years she has seen her share of rude passengers and difficult situations. And her wages have likely not kept up with inflation. She like millions of Americans have lost ground economically.

Yet – she is grateful. Wow.

The Housekeepers

Then there were the two housekeepers who showed up at my hotel during on Blizzard Day two weeks ago in Boston. There was a travel ban and 25 inches of snowing coming down and so I expected that the hotel would operate with a skeleton staff. Instead, these two walked 30 minutes through the blizzard to come to work. As I said in the column, the hotel should have paid them to stay home and told us customers to make do for a day. Instead the reality of their jobs is (I’m guessing) that if they had not trudged through the snow they likely would not have been paid.

And yet they not only showed up but were cheerful and friendly. Their’s is a hard job. I’m certain they don’t get paid enough. There are a lot of things I could say about them and learn from them – most importantly, on a human level I was simply touched by *how* they approached their work.

The Burger Kings

Then there are the rising burger kings Randy Garutti and Danny Meyer.

I had the pleasure of attending their pre-IPO roadshow in New York in January (Shake Shack went public in late January and it’s stock price initially doubled+).

I’ve known Danny and Randy now for years. Danny, the founder, has spoken to The Councils (my community of senior leaders who care about customer experience) about his philosophy of hospitality and his wonderful book, “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.” I’ve personally seen firsthand from both Danny and Randy – and everyone around them – the way they live their commitment to serve.

At the roadshow, Danny was most excited to introduce me to his long-serving assistant – a woman I’ve only known by email and phone. And I understood his enthusiasm. I was also quite excited to meet her. She’s incredible. And that was just a very small but good example of how Danny operates. His assistant works for him but he also serves her. I’ve seen this kind of attitude repeated hundreds of times by Danny, Randy and the many people who work with them.

When an analyst asked about competing higher-end burger chains, Randy, answered that they are not in the burger business. Yes, they serve burgers. Yes, they are very good burgers with great ingredients. But, he said, if you focus only on the burgers you miss the bigger picture. He then talked about how they see the business they are in: they are in the business of creating an experience for their employees and their customers. They are in the business of creating leaders from within their team. He talked about their culture. He talked about their commitment to each other and to their customers.

As I sat in the audience, it was clear to me that this hard-charging, cynical Wall Street audience had not ever quite met such authentic, non-cynical leaders before. In fact, many CEOs use similar words to Randy’s but in their mouths those words ring hollow.

Randy and Danny radiate like the flight attendant, like the housekeepers, like the taxi driver. They take pleasure from serving. They are grateful. They are humble.

And they have built a burger business – not exactly a new idea – by including everyone around them.

Now, the Internet CEOs

I gave my first Internet conference speech in San Francisco almost 20 years (August 1996 for the “Surfing the Web Potential” Conference by CIO Magazine). In those 20 or so years a lot has changed. Most of my friends did not have email back then. No one had a ‘smartphone.’ Many people doubted whether the Internet was for real (that, in fact, was the focus of the conference back in 1996). Fortunes have been made. Many companies have started. Most have failed. A few revolutions have been enabled and billions of people communicate in new ways.

There’s also been a lot of talk about customers – and increasingly complicated models for understanding customers. In fact, most of these models – no matter how well intentioned by their designers – end up helping consultants sell their consulting services and helping executives get further away from and not closer to the real people who are their customers.

And in these twenty years, some in the Internet world (many?) have put the pursuit of money on a pedestal and turned it into a religion. The Internet – certainly here in Silicon Valley – has become a lottery for creating riches.

My message this month to these Internet CEOs and others is this: learn from these two housekeepers, the Delta flight attendant, the Boston taxi driver and the burger kings – and include the people around you. Include your employees. Include your customers.

I will walk through some of the important stories and lessons in my book. I will talk about Netflix and Apple, about Walmart. I will share the one most powerful thing that I learned in 15 years of running my consulting company and serving more than 400 leading Internet companies and CEOs.

And I will also say this: forget the abstract label of “customer”, or “employee”, or “partner.” Disregard the jargon and the complicated models.

When we talk about customers we are talking about people. Real people. Your customers are people. Your employees are people. People respond to other people who treat us well. Who respect us. Who care. Who look for ways to meet our needs and create meaning. Who live life with a sense of service, of gratitude, of humility.

I will tell them that if you truly include your customers and employees, it will likely increase the chances of your success. You’ll be more flexible, you’ll be willing to learn. You’ll create much better products and services – and, most important, you’ll create a great culture.

And if what you are doing doesn’t work – or work the way you had hoped – then if you have conducted yourself with gratitude and a sense of service along the way, then you will have created goodwill and meaningful relationships for yourself and everyone around you.

So, yes, there is so much you have to focus on and worry about when running an Internet company, or the product function at Google, or the App Store at App. I just ask that while doing all that you do – you also do one simple thing: include your customers and your employees. Lead with love. With gratitude. With humility. And with a sense of serving the real people that make your business possible.

About the Author

Phyl Terry

Phyl Terry, Founder and CEO of Collaborative Gain, Inc., launched the company’s flagship leadership program – The Councils – in 2002 with a fellow group of Internet pioneers from Amazon, Google, and others. Thousands of leaders from the Internet world have come together in the last 15 years to learn the art of asking for help and to support each other to build better, more customer-centric products, services, and companies.

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