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Employees are your customers

Treat employees fairly, but not necessarily the same:

U.S. General H. Norman Schwarzkopf is best known for leading coalition forces as they liberated Kuwait from Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. While his incredible military career was epic, I often remember him for a few lines from his autobiography “It Doesn't Take a Hero.”

He recounts how he had graduated from West Point and for one of his first assignments he was put in charge of a platoon of paratroopers who were anything but the disciplined fighters he was expecting. He quickly learned that he couldn’t treat each soldier the same. To paraphrase, he communicated with an educated man with logic, a country boy with sensibility and a tough inner-city kid by convincing the soldier that Schwarzkopf was the meanest S.O.B around and you better follow his orders.

It’s far from a politically correct concept but when I — a guy with years of raw management experience at the time — read that description, I immediately related. Now, I’ve heard and read that, as a manager, you should always treat all your employees the same. Treat them equally. That textbook tactic is fine until you actually apply it to the people you are leading. Sorry to break it to you experts, but workers in most Western countries, especially the United States, see themselves ultimately as individuals, each with something unique to offer — and they want both recognition and respect for their individual qualities.

To clarify, this concept simply means managers may communicate with individual employees in terms they understand best — like speaking their language. All employees should still be treated in the same fair manner. It does not allow managers to play favorites, and all employees should still be expected to follow the exact same rules with no exceptions.

While reading his book, I came to realize what a genius Schwarzkopf really was. He sought adventure, and through his many travels he gained a sincere appreciation of the many cultures throughout the world. He was far from the madman his nickname “Stormin’ Norman” implies. He gained an understanding of customs and human nature that served him well during his ultimate challenge when he held together an international coalition to defeat Saddam Hussein’s death grip on Kuwait in the Gulf War.

Each individual responds differently

Years later, I recounted Schwarzkopf’s simple approach toward commanding a team of individuals. I was speaking to a couple of highly self-righteous senior newspaper managers who, quite frankly, didn’t have the front-line leadership experience they should have had at their level. Their knowledge was all theory and little real substance. Of course they were horrified by my description of this simple tactic used by Schwarzkopf. I wasn’t surprised, but I was sure about what I was saying. Maybe I don’t know much, but what I do know, I know based on experience.

A leader can start out stating policies and giving orders to a group as a whole, but breaking down the individual responsibilities takes more effort and originality. Each person needs to know about the important role they will play in the execution of a plan. Furthermore, each person responds to assignments differently. This is especially true in these days of so-called entitlement, when it’s common for employees to question orders.

The best bosses customize assignments AND their interaction for each individual on their team.

A recent feature on BBC adds credibility to this concept in a much more detailed and sophisticated manor. Sydney Finkelstein, renown author and professor of management at Dartmouth College, explains that customization has entered every part of commerce and business except management. He describes how the best bosses customize assignments AND their interaction for each individual on their team.

Sydney Finkelstein

Leadership assessments

How many of us have taken a leadership style quiz? I’ve taken about four during my career and found them quite fascinating and somewhat accurate, but those administering the quizzes have always failed to explain how to use the results to make me a better manager. Finkelstein refers to such assessments, explaining that they encourage managers to rush back and “fulfill the destiny set by their style,” individual employees be damned. These actions set in motion a series of efforts by employees to deal with and react to their bosses. This type of employee-supervisor relationship wastes huge amounts of effort that could be applied to accomplishing assignments and reaching company goals.


Finkelstein goes so far as to state that employees are the manager’s customers. Bosses should do their best to help employees reach their potential and advance their careers.

Conventional managers may scoff at this idea, but I can personally attest to the success of this philosophy. Face it, success as a manger is not about you; it’s about the overall ability of your team to successfully accomplish team goals. Help each member of your team succeed and improve. Once you put your ego aside and feel confident in your own skin, you can stop trying to showcase your own abilities and begin sincerely helping your employees succeed. Encourage them, showcase their accomplishments and try to help them advance their careers.

Think about it: when your employees succeed, you succeed. You can build a reputation as a great trainer, leader and builder of successful teams; a company leader.

Finkelstein authored a new book titled “Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent.”

His BBC feature is worth a look:


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