CEOs Who Are Pleasers Should Spend More Time With Customers

I woke up this morning thinking about people who have a desire to please. This is not my personality type, but I encounter it regularly. Amy often describes herself as an “approval-seeking people pleaser” and I’ve learned a lot from my 30 years of interacting with her.

With CEOs I often notice the pleaser personality in the context of employees. The pleaser wants everyone around him to be happy. This creates a positive reinforcement dynamic for the CEO – if everyone is happy, things must be good. If employees aren’t happy for any reason, that becomes a priority for the CEO to solve.

This often happens independent of the situation. The CEO is not focused on the root cause of what is going on, but rather the specific activity that is causing an employee to be unhappy, especially in the context of the CEO or another employee. Often, the source of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, or frustration is exogenous to the CEO and the company.

As I was rolling this around in my early morning brain, the thought occurred to me that if you are a CEO and a people pleaser, you should spend more time with your customers.

It’s not that employees shouldn’t be happy. That’s a cultural norm that can be a great goal. But it should be an embedded cultural norm, not the sole responsibility of the CEO. So, the CEO who is a people pleaser runs the risk of misallocating her time to ensuring employee happiness.

There are a plenty of CEOs who spend a lot of time with customers, but I’ve never met a CEO who spent too much time with her customers. Early stage CEOs often do this effectively but as the company grows, the time spent with customers as a percentage of overall time goes down. There are plenty of rational reasons for this, but it ends up in the same place – the CEO steadily spends a lower percentage of time with customers.

If you are naturally a pleaser, spend more time with your customers in 2017. Re-energize yourself by getting in the feedback loop with the users of your product. While they’ll have plenty of negative and critical feedback, you can then filter what matters, solve for it, and stay in a feedback loop that generates positive feedback as you make your customers happier, solving for your pleaser needs.

If you think your customers are uniformly happy, you are deluding yourself. If your employees are happy but your customers are unhappy, you are screwed as a business. And, if you are a CEO who is naturally a people pleaser and you are in this situation (happy employees, unhappy customers) you are likely destroying your business.

You are not going to please all of your employees. That’s not your job as CEO.  Instead, channel your need to please to spending time with customers.

Also published on Medium.

  • Fletcher Richman

    Watching Brian Chesky do this realtime on twitter over the last day has been amazing. His responsiveness and openness to new ideas is inspiring.

    • Yup – that’s a superb example. I just read through the thread and it’s awesome.

  • Harsha G

    Good reminder on the need to spend more time with customers, even (and more importantly) as we grow. It’s obvious, but not easy to follow as you have illustrated.

  • Whats the most important thing for an early stage, venture backed startup? Sales. Sales is the only thing that gets rid of the VCs. Revenue instead of investment. Everyone sells all the time.

  • The manager of the Oakland As from Moneyball, Billy Beane, had a great line when he was asked about “clubhouse morale.” He responded that he doesn’t focus on clubhouse morale. Instead, he focuses on winning. “When we win, the guys are happy.”
    If your customers are happy, odds are that you’ll win. Which will make your employees happy — at least those who are there for the right reasons.
    FWIW, when we stopped worrying as much about making people happy, we started winning a lot more. And that made everyone much happier.

  • “There are a plenty of CEOs who spend a lot of time with customers, but I’ve never met a CEO who spent too much time with her customers.”

    This is so spot on. The only words I’d add are “or potential customers”.

    You know I just beat on the drum and people get tired of hearing and I can only count on one hand:

    1. Find and keep the best employees
    2. Orchestrate between departments
    3. Set a commitment system nobody writes a check they can’t cash
    4. Talk to and visit customers and potential customers
    5. Set the strategy which is most importantly what you don’t do.

    • I’ve been thinking a lot more lately about #5 – what you don’t do. I have several CEOs implement this as part of their 2017 planning and it’s been super interesting.

      • Think about this: The largest tech companies in the world in no particular order: Microsoft, Apple, SAP, Oracle, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

        Do not have the resources to do everything they want to do “right now”

        So why the hell as a startup would you think you can???

        That is delusional.

        You pick what is most important. I used to think that everything was the most important and felt bad if I said we aren’t going to do this.

        Frances Frei: gave a really good point. If on a scale of 1 to 5 of what you want to do, every 5 (top) needs you to make something else a 1. Otherwise you are an exhausted 3.

        Think about it. Southwest: Price 5, comfort near 1. Qatar: Price: near 1, Service: 5

        Yes your sales and marketing people will always say if we just had this, we could do that.

        That is my point 2. No, that isn’t going to happen.

  • koolhead17

    I think it goes both ways, if your employees are unhappy they will not build great product making customer unhappy.

    • While there is a cause and effect loop here, simply making your employees happy will not necessarily mean your customers are happy either.

      I think every CEO aspires to have happy employees. The miss, in my experience, is that CEOs spend much to much time on this instead of setting a culture and making sure the right employees are part of the team (e.g. ones who subscribe to the cultural norms.)

  • Tatiana Finkelsteyn

    Great post, thanks. Over the years, I have learned that client interactions can serve as a tool to combat my own tendency to be the people-pleasing CEO described. Meeting with clients gives me the information needed to explain unpopular behavior to employees in the context of the customer and therefore make the conversation more positive and productive