Thank God for Product-Centric Leaders

First published May 1, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

All you who have Google stock, take a moment to thank Larry and Sergey. You who have fallen in lust with your iPhone, stop and say a silent prayer for Steve Jobs. And you parents who spent many a peaceful hour thanks to your kids being glued to a Disney movie, face towards Disneyland and bow to Walt himself, may he rest in peace (or a freezer, as rumor has it). Thank God for product-centric leaders, because they are few and far between.

Customer-Centricity: More Than Just Words

I have spent many an hour in conference rooms listening to the new “religion” of customer-centricity that has suddenly taken hold of the mega-corporation X, Y or Z. The scripted lines are typically “We are here to serve our customer. We will find optimal strategies to maximize customer experience and revenue opportunities. We embrace good design.”

It may sound good in the annual report, but it’s not that easy. When you talk about balance, I hear compromise. Somebody is losing, and it’s almost always your customer. Because as Sergey, Larry, Steve and Walt will tell you, there can only be one person driving this bus. Either it’s your sales manager, or it’s your customer. Come to any intersection and one will tell you to turn right and one will tell you to turn left. Who are you going to listen to?

Now, obviously, Apple, Google and Disney have been known to make a buck or two, so customer-centricity can be profitable. It depends on which route you want to take to get there. If you take the customer’s route, it means having the courage to say no to a lot of people inside your company (and out) along the way. And really, the only person who can say no and get away with it is the leader of the company.

The Product-Centric Leader

Here’s a shocker, coming from me. The more I think about it, the more I don’t believe customer-centricity is the key. It’s not a goal, it’s a by-product. It comes as part of the package (often unconsciously) with another principle that is a little more concrete: product-centricity. Product-centric leaders, the ones that are obsessive about what gets shipped out the door, are customer-centric by nature. They understand the importance of that magical intersection between product and person, the sheer power of amazing experiences. The iPhone is amazing. Disney classics are amazing. My first search on Google was amazing. Steve, Walt, Larry and Sergey wouldn’t have it any other way. They focus attention on the importance of that experience, and know, somewhere deep down inside, that if they get it right, the revenue will take care of itself.

The other thing about product-centric leaders is that they don’t have to do extensive customer research. They may, and many do, but they already have a gut instinct for what their customers want, because they are their own customer. Larry and Sergey invented a new search engine because the old ones were fundamentally broken and they were fed up with them. Walt built Disneyland because he was tired of sleazy, grimy amusement parks. And Steve knew that some people need a lot more than a beige, generic box because he’s one of them. They have user-centricity baked into their core, because they’re building products they want to use. They don’t compromise in the drive to create a product that’s good enough for them. It’s a happy coincidence that there are lots of other people who also love the product. It’s an intuitive connection that 99.9% of corporate leaders can’t imagine, let alone do.

Managers Are Almost Never Product-Centric

The typical corporate manager has no special bond to the product. Along the line, too, many compromises have been made in the name of profitability. Whatever amazement the product may have once had has been sold off, bit by bit, along the way. The sales manager and the bean counters have taken over the steering wheel. They turn out bland, uninspiring products they wouldn’t use themselves. They are not product centric, they’re profit-centric, and profit really doesn’t inspire anyone.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how so many companies can preach customer-centricity, yet continually miss the mark by so much so often. Look at the ones who hit the bull’s eye regularly. It turns out that it’s not so much customer-centricity they’re aiming for, it’s delivering products the leaders are obsessed with because they can’t wait to use them themselves. That’s a key element “Good to Great” and “Built to Last” author Jim Collins missed in his Level 5 leadership. Steve Jobs would never be mistaken for Collin’s or Stephen Covey’s ideal leader, but if I were looking for someone who’s going to turn out a product that blows me away, Steve would be my guy.

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