27 November 2019

I have spent 35 years working in or around the front line of customer service delivery across three very different sectors – hospitality, retail banking and housing/social care – and in that time I must have attended around 20 "leadership" programmes which involved being assessed, reading a book and attending workshops run by people who run workshops. Don’t get me wrong, I have undoubtedly improved or amended my approach as a result of these, but as experience builds on learning, clarity emerges and a few things start to strike me as being true.

Fundamental to all things is the belief that leadership is service – it’s not about awards or titles or power or popularity – it’s about a humble belief that you exist to serve those who serve your customers. If you forget this and let your ego get ahead of you, you won’t take people with you. To test yourself on this, remember to look around you, listen to and recognise those doing the real work – they are your barometer. Leadership is ultimately about followship and if no one is following you, then you really can’t claim to be a leader.

Secondly, be careful about what you measure. The old adage that "what gets measured gets done" is spectacularly true and has been the downfall of many organisations. I sometimes recall my days in financial services and my team’s individual targets of selling insurance on 60% of all personal loans – recognition was heaped upon those who smashed that target. If you want to change a culture, change what you measure and recognise those who lead the way for you.

Thirdly, think about the language you use. Calling people "officers", talking about "enforcement" and "managing" our residents has to be responsible for much of the stigma experienced by those living in social housing. If we "police" people they'll see us as looking specifically for what they're doing wrong; as an agency that judges and punishes. We become the people who have the power to take away their home. We need to find a new language and a new culture, a culture which appeals to people who want to help, and who are driven to level out the inequalities which limit peoples’ opportunities to live well.

If we are to gain the trust of our residents and customers, we have to make changes and this starts with us as leaders. Let’s not line the pockets of post-it-note-wielding consultants and change managers who tell us what we already know so we can then ignore them because it’s just too hard and we just can’t afford it. Changing our own leadership behaviour is free and is the only way to affect meaningful and long-lasting change for our colleagues, residents and customers.

Join us at Customer Experience Conference and Exhibition 2020 to continue the conversation. Ann will be speaking on the 10:30am panel which discusses how you can drive great customer experience through employee empowerment. View the full event agenda.

Ann Gibbons

Ann is Executive Director, Customer Services at Metropolitan Thames Valley.

Ann is Executive Director, Customer Services at Metropolitan Thames Valley having joined in 2013 to lead the Care and Support team.

Ann was previously Regional Operations Director at Anchor, where she led the northwest region of the business through a period of transformation. She had management roles in financial services, including at Santander, Yorkshire Bank Derbyshire Building Society and, most recently, at Nationwide Regional Brands.

The first 20 years of Ann’s career were in catering and hospitality, starting as a general assistant and going on to open a variety of themed restaurants in Europe.

The role of leadership in customer experience