Big Idea 2021: To Be Great, Be Humble

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Some time ago, I had lunch with a friend, John Nichols. John is a retired pastor, and as we walked out of the restaurant, I mentioned something that had long bothered me. In the otherwise compelling Sermon on the Mount in the King James Bible, there is a Beatitude that had never made much sense to me: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.”

Really? In my experience, if loyal, principled people want to make the world a better place, they must stand up, courageously, for what they believe in. John advised me to stop fretting. Biblical scholars today pretty much agree that the scribes chose “meek” simply because its single syllable suited the cadence of their poetic interpretation. The accurate translation, he reassured me, is actually humble. Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth.

Now that makes more sense. In business, there is little hope for true servant leadership without humility. Absent humility, employees up and down the organization simply won’t prioritize or process feedback, and without that employee commitment, innovation withers, and so does upgrading of the customer experience. When I ask loyalty-leader CEOs of some of the most successful companies to list the greatest threats to sustained success, they don’t cite external risks such as new competitors armed with breakthrough technologies. Instead, they point to enemies from within: greed, arrogance, complacency and entitlement. These represent different facets of the same curse—the failure to be humble.

Humility, to my mind, is the foundation of a customer-centered world. Executives can do many things to cultivate humility. They can:

  • observe customers using their product or service and ask them what could make their experience even better;
  • regularly listen in on or even handle customer calls and problems, and make sure they read customer verbatim feedback and follow up when appropriate;
  • provide empathy training that helps every employee (plus executives and board members) relate to customers and utilize their own personal perspectives and experiences as consumers to inform improvement priorities; and
  • regularly ask frontline employees what needs to change to help them delight more customers—and act on that feedback.

Humility implies a belief that the world can be so much better than it is today. In this way, it motivates constant improvement and innovation.

In late November, the business world lost one of its great (and humble) innovators, Tony Hsieh. Tony was the longtime CEO of online shoe seller Zappos, but as he often said himself, he was not actually much interested in shoes. What really animated him was the idea of making people happy.

I had the opportunity to meet Tony several times. He helped institute the Net Promoter Score at Zappos, and though we were of different generations and bents, we agreed wholeheartedly that any truly great business must be built around happy customers and employees.

Tony was the first person to talk to me about sales and marketing expense as a tax companies must pay for not being special. Interestingly, many loyalty leaders—companies with the most exceptionally loyal customers—do indeed have much smaller ad budgets than competitors. Advertising is beating your chest. It is the opposite of humility.

Several years ago, during a visit to Zappos’ Las Vegas headquarters, Tony summed up his philosophy in typically humble terms. “I used to wear one pair of shoes for two years and then just buy the same pair again after there were too many holes in it,” he said. “For me, my passion has never been about shoes. It’s about service and culture. You can figure out how to make employees happy and how to make customers happy, then the business kind of just takes care of itself. It’s just about delivering happiness, whether it’s to employees or customers, and having fun is one element of what makes people happy.”

I saw a lot of people having fun on that visit, including three of Tony’s colleagues singing a capella a song they had written about the joys of NPS.

Net Promoter rocks

We use it every day

Did we wow the customer?

It tells us what they say

Quantifies their happiness

Which pleases Tony Hsieh

Thank you, NPS, for showing us the way

You can see their joyful performance, along with Tony and others discussing Zappos’ NPS journey in this video.

“This is not just about how do you make Zappos a great business,” Tony says at the end, “but how do you actually change the world and make it a better place?”

Starting with humility will keep you curious, innovating and laser-focused on what really matters.

Happy New Year.


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