Great leaders connect with, influence and inspire those around them. Bill Gessert, who has served as President of the International Customer Service Association since 2007, has spent his career creating forums and opportunities for leaders to connect and grow. And so, on the eve of Customer Service Week, first founded by the ICSA in 1988, I offer this Growing Leaders Salute to Bill Gessert.
Leadership and Connections
Q: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
A: Early in my tenure as a “leader” I learned the sometimes painful lesson that as a leader, I don’t have to do EVERYTHING. That was not easy for me because I am very much a self-starter and am driven to see things get done. My philosophy of leadership has evolved to an understanding that to be truly effective, I need to rely on others their skills, abilities, ideas, and creativity. I work hard to recognize and understand what others bring to the table and then utilize their skills and abilities appropriately. Also, I believe a leader must be passionate about what they are doing. That passion is contagious and brings out the best efforts and results of others.
Q: Your leadership seems to be very much about creating connections. When and how did you realize that learning to connect was important?
Not soon enough! There is no reason to “go it alone” when there are so many people out there that know as much or more than I do. Connecting people is really one of the most rewarding things anyone can do. And when you make connections that matter, everyone benefits. When you make positive and meaningful connections, those people often return the favor at just the right time. Making connections – good ones – is a skill.
Q: How does involvement in associations help leaders to grow and develop?
A: Associations are ALL about connection. When we connect with others in our industry, people with a shared vision and goal, we are bound to learn and grow. One of the things we try to do at each conference is build time into the schedule to allow people to connect. We even include activities to help foster positive connections by helping people find their common ground with others.
The collective experience and knowledge of the “group” will always trump the individual. Associations create that “group” in a powerful way that makes everyone stronger. Leaders need to be exposed to the wide range of thoughts, ideas, emerging tools, and the thought leaders within their industry in order to develop their own skills and abilities. I’ve always felt one of the key attributes of effective leaders is remaining humble enough to keep learning. Associations, when they are working correctly, are a great source of learning opportunities.
Q: As a leader of volunteers at the ICSA, how do you encourage participation and shared leadership?
A: I think encouraging participation and spreading leadership around all begins with sharing the mission and vision of your group. Why do you exist? What do you provide that people cannot get anywhere else? What is your purpose, both today and into the future? And how are you going to get there? All of that has to be shared before people will choose to engage. This is especially true in a volunteer organization like the ICSA. We have accomplished a great deal in our 31 years of existence and it all pours out of a shared understanding of our mission and vision.
Also, from a very practical standpoint you have to recognize that people have only so much bandwidth to give to the Association’s work. It is important to not only understand that but to function out of that understanding. In other words, don’t ask someone to do something that just will not fit into the time they have to give to the Association. As a leader, it is important to talk to all your key volunteers and gain a realistic idea of how much time they have and what can be accomplished with that time.
Finally, never underestimate the power of recognition and thanks. Failure to say thanks for your time, effort, and results is the fastest way to disenfranchise a solid contributor to your team. I’ve gone back to sending hand written “thank yous” because I know how very much those have meant to me over the years. I find it more personal and sincere. It takes a bit more time (and I hate my handwriting) but the extra effort of writing those notes is always notices and deeply appreciated
Customer Service Week
Q: Can you tell me about why the ICSA felt like it was important to formalize a week to recognize customer service professionals?
A: The ICSA created National Customer Service Week for two reasons. First, as a means of celebrating the incredible efforts of front line service providers. We believe in regular and frequent recognition of the efforts of service professionals. But setting aside this one week ensures that there will be a focus on celebrating their work.
Secondly, National Customer Service Week was also created to increase the understanding and awareness of the vital role that customer service plays in building and maintaining loyal customers. The profitability of any organization is directly impacted by the quality of their service. National Customer Service Week is a time when the ICSA works to bring this fact into light and increase the awareness of the value of customer service “professionals.”
Q: What leadership lessons can be learned from the evolution of customer service week?
A: Jeanne Bliss wrote a wonderful book entitled, Chief Customer Officer. In it she shares how several outstanding and successful companies have accomplished their success in large part because someone within the organization fulfilled the role of Chief Customer Officer. A person who represents the customers in every strategic meeting and across all of the “silos” that tend to exist in organizations.