The Front Line

By Scott Westerman

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Scott’s Maxim – “Leading a team is one continual story problem. Those closest to the customer know the answers.”

The Apple Campus on “Infinite Loop Drive” in Cupertino radiates innovation. So having lunch with a Spartan who is part of the Apple leadership team had my creative engine turbo charged. He graduated from MSU with an Electrical Engineering degree. And he earns his living translating geek speak into something that the senior leadership can use to make the strategic decisions that drive one of the world’s biggest corporations.

“What’s the best way we can prepare young Spartans engineers for success here,” I asked.

“Send them to GM to work on the production line the summer after freshman year.”

That one felt counterintuitive. Wouldn’t we want to expose young minds to product development and leadership as soon as possible?

“They will learn how to be better leaders once they personally experience how they are treated when they are at the bottom of the totem pole.”

We talked for another two hours, but that one sentence remains my biggest take-away. To understand how to best serve the customer, understand how to best serve the team.

The most effective way to learn the golden rule is to be on the receiving end. Every enterprise needs smart people to guide it’s fortunes. And the smartest people are often those who help create the product. To learn how to best serve them, we must become them.

This is the allure of the “Undercover Boss” reality show. What happens when you strip away someone’s perceived power and make them walk a mile in someone else’s shoes?

Think back to your own “character building” experiences; times when you dug ditches, flipped burgers, washed dishes, or took phone calls from unhappy customers. Were you encouraged to innovate and participate in problem solving? Did your boss seek your input on how things could be done more effectively? Were you treated as if you were full partners, important corporate shareholders?

Now think about where you are right now. Whatever your assignment, you can be a servant leader. What can you do to foster an employee centered – customer focused environment around you?

You may think that it’s impossible for one person, especially you, to impact the organizational culture of a small business, let alone a large corporation. But that’s how real change happens.

“Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better,” wrote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As I shook hands with my Apple Spartan that day in Cupertino, his wisdom was swirling through my head. My mind was, “aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought,” as Hedlee Lamar might say, “careening through a cosmic vapor of invention.”

Somewhere in your portfolio of relationships, there is someone who can give you an idea that can change your life. Be open to input from every direction. The answer you seek may well emerge when and where you least expect it.

On the front line.