I have an unusual rule in my company: Nobody has to do anything they don’t believe in.
But what does that mean in practice? It means that, despite being the CEO, I can’t actually order anyone to do anything. The only way I can get people to do what I want is to persuade them until they come around to my point of view.
Since everyone in the organization has a different background, they all have their own individual points of view. Not only is their thinking shaped by unique education, career paths, and experiences, but they also have a duty to fight for the interests of the part of the organization they represent—sales, accounting, HR, etc.
Hammering out consensus and winning agreements from such a diversity of viewpoints is far from easy, and it’s something I’ve struggled with ever since I launched my company in 1992.
One episode really helped crystallize my thinking on how to get buy-in from other people.
My company is a business school. We offer MBA courses and corporate training. Since the school started, we have provided a service guarantee to MBA students, promising “satisfaction or your money back.”
After the business had been running for a number of years, I proposed extending this money-back service guarantee to our corporate customers. The corporate education division was unanimous and fierce in its opposition to the idea.
Their reasoning was logical enough. When you reimburse an individual MBA student for a single course module, you’re talking about a maximum of several thousand dollars. But with corporate education, you’re talking about hundreds of students—and sums that can run into millions of dollars.
My colleagues were justifiably terrified that our corporate customers might be tempted to game the system, pretending to be dissatisfied to get their money back.
Why, then, was I so keen on a service guarantee when everyone else was dead set against it? I trace my enthusiasm for the idea back to an article I read while at Harvard Business School in the late 1980s.
The article talked about how Domino’s Pizza had built brand loyalty through two unconditional service guarantees: first, that if you didn’t like your pizza, they would give you another one (of a different flavor!) for free; and second, that if they didn’t deliver your pizza to you within 30 minutes, you could have it for nothing.
The data showed that the upsides of offering a service guarantee far outweighed the downsides. While a small proportion of customers did try to game the system and get all the freebies they could, they accounted for less than one-tenth of one percent of all customers. The remaining 99.9 percent of customers were honest, and the message Domino’s service guarantees sent to them was that Domino’s was passionate about serving them good food in a timely manner.
Rather than argue with my colleagues who were against extending our guarantee to corporate customers, I simply distributed printed copies of the article which had such a powerful impact on me at Harvard and asked them to read it before our next meeting, a week later.
And what happened at that meeting? Simply as a result of reading the article, everyone came around to my point of view. The consensus switched from being anti to being pro the service guarantee. Without any battles or bad blood, ideas had won the day.
This experience convinced me of the importance of leaders actively sharing their experiences and insights so that their colleagues can get a sense of what lies behind the policies they propose.
That’s why I write a blog and use platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to share my thoughts, solicit feedback, and maintain an ongoing dialogue with people inside and outside my organization.
People like to say that leaders live shut away in “bubbles,” “echo chambers,” and “ivory towers,” and that it’s “lonely at the top.”
Well, that’s never been true for me. I make a point of reaching out and making and implementing policy decisions with other people, based on the pooling of our shared knowledge, experience and insights.
As a result, I’ve never felt lonely at all. Dare I say it, a lonely leader is probably doing something wrong!