No, I don’t mean the name of your company and I’m not getting into the bigger philosophical discussion of why you work. What I mean is, to whom are you ultimately responsible to produce great work, improve your efficiency and set goals for innovation and growth? Chances are if you’re a lower- or mid-level employee, you’ll probably point to your team lead or boss. If you’re a team lead or boss, you may point to a corporate executive. If you’re a corporate executive, you’ll probably point up the ladder to the CEO. And if you’re the CEO, then who do you work for? Do you point to the board of directors, your team of venture capitalists, your bankers, your shareholders…or your customers?
Careful, there’s only one correct answer.
In the mid 1990’s, I worked for a small and successful design firm in Seattle. We had an annual retreat during which we’d close the office for the day and take a trip somewhere to discuss our team, our work, our clients, and set goals for the next 12 months. One year, the event facilitator asked us to raise our hands in response to the question: “Who here is a businessperson?” I was surprised to see that I was the only person who had not raised their hand. I was thinking of “businessperson” in archaic, subjective terms: like, someone who wears ties and buys and sells things. What I realized was that I—a graphic designer—was indeed a businessperson (minus the tie), just like everyone else at my company, and just like everyone else who has a job, regardless of title or status. Every time I designed, created and produced work for our clients was another form of buying and selling. Every interaction I had with a client reinforced the business relationship between client and company. This was a pivotal moment in my career—the stark realization that I was not a designer, but a businessperson, working to please and maintain clients—and a necessary part of our company’s bottom line. I’ve embraced that title ever since.
When I started working for the internet startup, I imagined the goal would be the same as it was at every other company I’d worked for in my 20 year career. It didn’t take long before I was disillusioned with conflicting interests: projects that ignored user feedback and goals that served the bottom line of the investors, at the—literal—expense of the users. I soon realized that the entire company worked for the CEO, at his whim, despite our better judgement. The CEO, in turn, worked for the Board, which was made up entirely of VC partners who funded the entire operation and their only concern was the return on their investment. The money came from the Board, so we were beholden to them. The company was unprofitable, so the users’ needs—the clients’ needs—were ignored. We didn’t work for our clients; we worked for our underwriters with blatant disregard for our customers.
If we focused first on creating a great product that served the needs of our clients, the company would probably have been highly profitable by now. Instead, the focus was on pleasing the Board and the fickle whims of the CEO. Of course, it’s a two-way street and the Board should have been clear about the mission of the company and allowed it to succeed. The Board’s only focus was in increasing their return and this focus was enforced by the CEO. When the bottom line is increasing returns for a select few, rather than better caring for your customers who will return loyalty, increased business and referrals, that’s a major disservice to your clients, a lot of great corporate talent wasted, and a failed business plan.
The answer to the question should be simple: “I work for my customers.” If it’s anything else, then you should talk to your boss, or CEO, or the board of directors.