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A Conversation with Three CEOs

Panel Discussion

By Angie Grissom

With increasing competition in business that every company is facing, companies that wish to thrive must continue to do their best to remember those things that are the most important and also prepare their managers and executives to be strong leaders-the future depends on it.

I recently facilitated a panel discussion with three CEOs of small to mid-sized companies across the U.S. The discussion included a focus on client value creation and preparing company leaders. I selected these CEOs based on their reputation for growth, strong culture and progressive thinking. I wanted to hear from them what their focuses were these days.

The CEOs shared thoughts and best practices about creating a culture focused on creating value for clients, and not just what we ordinarily think of as value. True value and deep relationships that come from a focus on understanding the human emotions and business challenges of their clients is what we discussed.

Whether your organization manufacturers a product or offers health care or consulting to clients, the emotions of your clients are important. Many times, business leaders get so caught up in the day to day of running a business, they forget to put the client at the center. These CEOs believe that we must always return to a focus on the client.

So how do you do this? Talk with them. It is important that all organizations understand who makes up their client base. Regular conversations with top clients should be made a priority as well as surveying or assessing the opinions of a population of clients.

This can be done through in-person meetings with top clients, focus groups and surveys. You will want to ask them how you are doing as an organization. Ask them what would make their lives easier and what would make the experience of working with your company better.

Your sales representatives, consultants, providers or anyone who has access to clients can be involved in these conversations. When an organization commits to this, great things happen. New processes, innovation and improvements in overall service are all possible. I thought that was pretty good advice.

The next topic we discussed was the importance of developing future leaders in the organization. Whether your company is small or very large, an opportunity always exists to develop future leaders and involve employees or team members in strategic discussions about the company.

During the panel, the room was filled with executives who were emerging leaders and their interests piqued on the topic of what these CEOs wanted to see from them. They were thirsty for knowledge regarding the skills that were expected of them in order for them to be seen as successful leaders in their companies. It is one thing to read books about leadership and quite another to hear the thoughtful responses to their questions from firm leaders who are successfully growing their practices and grooming the next generation at the same time.

One question I asked was: “What are company leaders looking for in emerging leaders?” The responses were: High energy, coach-ability and talent who are passionate about serving their clients.

“It is hard to pinpoint,” one CEO said. “You just know when someone has what it takes to be a strong leader. You can see it in them.”

Others agreed that strong leadership is more than just the required technical skills – although they are important. It encompasses some passion, energy and focus on improving that most great leaders possess. This can be detected very early on.

Another question was: “How would you recommend teaching future leaders to become good customer servers regardless of the industry?” The responses were similar and came down to this: Demand that the current leaders allow them to shadow them on top customer meetings when possible. They then begin to participate in these meetings by asking thought provoking questions and coming back to the firm leader with suggestions for the client.

When one CEO was asked how we would handle it if his current management were acting in a protective way and never in favor of taking along others to their customer meetings, he said, “I would figuratively kick their butts. This is not acceptable.”

Well said, CEO. What better experience can someone get than actually “doing”? The more hands on our people are, the more opportunities they have for learning. These CEOs understood the importance of not only having the passion and raw material from the emerging executives, but also having the current leaders take responsibility for assisting in the development of the team.

While these CEOs were different, they shared the viewpoint that a focus on listening to clients and investing in the right future leaders will make all of the difference in the world. How can you apply these best practices to your business?

Angie Grissom, The Rainmaker CompaniesAngie Grissom is president of the The Rainmaker Companies in Nashville, Tenn.