Another way to ask Leavitt’s question is, “What problem are we trying to solve for our customers?” For tool makers, the implication is that it is not really about the tool. Rather, it is about the resulting condition that customers desire from the use of the tool. That is to say, it is holes in the ground they want, not shovels.
So Mr. or Ms. CLO, what business are you in? I would love to hear your answer. More importantly, I would love to hear how your customers would describe the condition they want as a result of using your products and services. Most of your customers will not answer that they desire to have more people away from the workplace, sitting in chairs, engaged in listening to lectures or in an online learning session doing activities for which there are questionable outcomes. Our customers have little interest in classes, learning management systems or blended learning. Their passion is for improved business performance, at the highest impact, with the lowest cost and in the least disruptive manner possible. If they could gain improvement through a special pill, magic potion or a silver bullet for a reasonable price, they would line up for it in droves. If you agree with this logic, then it follows that we are not in the business of providing classes, learning tools or even learning itself. We are in the business of facilitating improved business performance.
I was amazed when I understood the underlying logic behind the system used by U.S. News and World Report, BusinessWeek and others for ranking executive MBA programs. Often the most heavily weighted criteria is the increase in salary gained between the time participants start the program and 18 months after completing the degree. If you apply the logic of what business are you are in and you consider the student to be the customer, you can understand why this ranking system makes sense. Clearly an increase in salary is one of the principal reasons that a student chooses to go through these programs, but in fact, a significant percentage of these programs are not paid for by the students at all. Rather, these programs are paid for by their employers. If employers are the customers, why isn’t the criterion related to increased ability of the employee to contribute to the organization? Why is the criterion not related to an improvement in business performance?
When I was teaching industrial/organizational psychology at the U.S. Air Force Academy as a young Air Force pilot, I had the privilege of co-teaching the honors course in leadership studies with Dr. Lawrence Silverman, who was educated at Harvard University. While walking across campus one day, he asked me, “Know what’s wrong with this place?” I chuckled since I had graduated a few years before and we cadets made an occupation of criticizing the place. He said, “There are no benches.” He was referring to the fact that every great leap in the improvement of humankind and its organizations has more or less come from guided reflection. If there is not time for reflection, there is almost no chance for improvement.
We sometimes reflect on what it is that we hope for the years ahead, but it is often brief, rarely guided and soon forgotten in the activity-addicted world in which we live. Let me encourage you to take a few minutes to reflect on the question of what business you are really in and then to think about how you might execute that business in a manner that will exceed your customers’ expectations. You can do this after you finish shoveling, er, I mean, having all that snow removed from your driveway.
Fred Harburg is senior vice president of leadership & management development at Fidelity Investments Company. Fred has held numerous international leadership roles and worked with several Fortune 100 companies, including IBM, General Motors, Disney, AT&T and, most recently, Motorola. Fred can be reached at email@example.com.