Get emotional

As someone who is continually looking at numbers, specs, contracts, prospectuses, etc, it is easy to forget about the people who buy our products. Focusing singularly on the technical aspects of one’s job tends to create a clinical environment. Somewhere in the discussion of “ROI”, “pattern of cash flows”, “interest rate sensitivity” and “asset/liability matching” we lose touch with our emotions.

I’ve written about the importance of feeling something at work and how I believe it’s important to be “emotional” – even – no, especially – when you work in a technical field. Being “emotional” has a negative connotation, but I believe being an “emotional” employee will help you to become more engaged and innovative.

Your company exists because of its customers. Customers are the reason that any business exists. And spreadsheets, contracts, processes, KPI targets all serve as a buffer from the messiness of people’s lives. But why is it that we create, or allow this separation?

I believe this separation mindset was made popular during the industrial revolution, where management believed that employees were interchangeable parts. Managers only cared about the work force being as efficient as possible and most workers were happy to have a job that paid them much more than they could have made farming or continuing the family craft. Empathizing with the customers didn’t seem necessary.

But as we have moved from an industrialist society to a post-industrialist connection economy, empathy and connections matter. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t care if their work has impact.

Isn’t it time to change how we view our work?

Part of my personal journey involves a transformation of a worker who lacked empathy, to one who saw the life changing impact of knowing the customer intimately. Here are a couple of huge benefits of being closer connected to your customers:

  1. Better engagement – most workers net worth does not increase $1MM for every $1 increase in the stock price. Your record quarter doesn’t mean much to 95% of the company. What matters are the lives that you are able to impact through your work.
  2. Innovation – the magic of design thinking depends upon empathy. When I truly feel what it is like to have a particular problem, I see the real needs. The real problem. And I will develop more innovative solutions.

So, why aren’t more workers connected to the customers? I think the language we use plays a large part in removing the emotion from work. Here is an example from the actuarial field:

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This symbol stands for “the probability that a life aged 33 will not be living at the end of 15 years.” In other words, what are the chances that a guy aged 33, would die before 48? We would run a model and I could tell you that out of a 1000 lives, 21.297 people are not alive at the end of the 15 years.

While this may be technically accurate, it misses all the emotion. What if you thought of this symbol standing for:

  • A father not being there to walk his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day
  • A mother not being there to see her son graduate high school
  • A middle school aged girl who isn’t sure who will take her to a father-daughter dance

Photo credit: Jenna Perfette photography

How much more motivating and rich would your work become if you felt more connected to the impact your business has on its customers? Start by imaging the peoples lives that are represented by the spreadsheet. Your customers are more than just points in a model or a series of cashflows. They are real people.

There’s nothing wrong with using technical language to describe a calculation, or spending time in a spreadsheet. But don’t lose sight of your customers. Literally. Place their pictures on your walls, know their stories, go and talk to them.

You’ll find yourself more engaged and you’ll find yourself thinking more creatively about solving their problems.

Playing to Win


I am starting a series of posts on A.G Lafley and Roger Martin’s Playing to Win. It’s a delightful book on strategy AND it’s not what you might typically think about when the words “business strategy” are mentioned.

For many of you, the words “business strategy” will produce one of two responses.

One: you will want to fall asleep, close this tab in your browser, block my facebook updates.

Two: you think about businessmen and women in a room figuring out how they can make more money, often at the expense of you, the customer.

So what is different about Lafley and Martin’s approach? The winning is strongly linked to delivering superior value to your customers…i.e. you win when your customer wins.

Peter Drucker said, “the purpose of a business is to create a customer.” Contrast this with what is taught in every Economics 101 class, “the purpose of a business is to maximize profit.”

What Lafley and Martin show us (in this book and Martin’s articles) is that the way to maximize profit (the Econ 101 definition) is to maximize customer satisfaction. The ideas are related, but those that put the profit maximization ahead of making the customers happy will not win in the long run.

I think Johnson and Johnson’s credo is a great example of this idea. I’ve include the entire credo below. (highlight is mine). LINK TO PDF

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Notice the order in the credo:

  1. Customers
  2. Suppliers and Distributors
  3. Employees
  4. Communities
  5. Shareholders

The shareholders are listed LAST! Does J&J care about their shareholders? Absolutely, but they ensure that the shareholders win by taking care of 1-4 on the list above. “When we operate according to these principles, the stockholders should realize a fair return.”

I’l end this with a few questions, what do you think would motivate your employee base (or yourself)? A: Solving an important problem for your customer, somehow making their lives better, etc. or B: Improving returns for shareholders?

For me (and for 99.999% of the world) it’s A. I get excited about discovering and meeting our customers needs. I want to help ensure that they are delighted.

What should we be teaching students in economics? The purpose of the firm is to maximize profits? or should it be that the purpose of the firm is to maximize customer value? Which one would attract the best and the brightest into business? Again, I believe we could dramatically change the experience of most business school students by focusing on improving the lives of customers.

For the next few blog posts, I’ll dive further into some of the ideas discussed in Playing to Win. Now that you see that strategy can have a higher purpose, please come along for the ride.

Roger was kind enough to spend a few minutes with me and sign my copy of his book.

Roger was kind enough to spend a few minutes with me and sign my copy of his book.