Do I need to love you?

Two fingers with smiling faces drawing on them with a love heart joining them - indicating two people in love

Do I love you? Do I need to? What if I can’t? Admittedly, this is a super weird way to be starting a post… and not the type of questions I thought I would be asking of myself within the first year of Vibrance.

I was prompted to reflect on love in the context of business when a highly respected former bank CEO mused over a herbal tea that if Vibrance was going to succeed, I would need to truly love my clients.

Love my clients? Really? I usually reserve the word love for a few very important things in my life. My wife (see how I got that one in first), my children, my dogs, our planet, my football team… the important things. When it comes to business, and in the words of the great Tina Turner, what’s love got to do with it?

I started to reflect on my time advising organisations and promptly found myself in a state of anxiety. I have worked with banks, energy companies, telecos, big miners, retailers, healthcare providers, car companies, insurers and global not for profit organisations, and I am not sure I loved any of them. They all had frustrating bureaucracy, struggled to make the progress they aspired to, and projected both good and bad into the wider world. They certainly didn’t evoke the warmth I feel towards my family; nor was I likely to give up every single winter weekend to loyally watch them in action even when they lose for 27 years straight (no bitterness to be found here so please move along).

I started to wonder if I was missing something. Do other advisors love their client organisations? It would be a pretty big kick in the guts to have chosen what I hope to be my most enduring entrepreneurial effort in an area where I struggle to meet the first pre-condition for success.

We often hear that organisations need to love their customer. Perhaps we are using the ‘L’ word with too much frivolity. Customer centricity is all the rage and rightly so, but do organisations actually feel love for their customers, and if we don’t mean love in the way that most of us interpret the word, then why do we use it? By now it was 2am and I needed some damn melatonin.

A few weeks later it dawned on me that perhaps I do in fact love my clients. Not so much the institutions, although I of course want them to succeed, but more the individuals who are the clients I serve daily. And if any of them are reading this, I hope they do not feel completely weirded out. On the rare occasion that the interests of an individual client diverge materially from that of the organisation, there is a conversation to be had, but normally they align.

I started to reflect that I spend more hours in the week trying to ensure the success of the human beings who are my clients than I do for that of my own children. I think about their careers, their hopes and aspirations, their development needs, how to influence them and help them influence others, their emotional well-being and even whether they are getting enough sleep… and I think about these things all the time. I quietly burst with pride when their organisations take steps forward, irrespective of whether my role was pivotal or minimal, and I find myself wanting to rage against journalists who provide negative coverage in the press or boards who are overly harsh, even if deep down I recognise that some of the critique may in fact be justified. Isn’t this what I would do and feel for my family whom I love?

One of my client CEOs is an inspiration. They can see a future for their entire industry that very few can, and have the courage to walk out on a limb where others might fear to tread. Another client CEO was fully into me for a while, but the environmental context changed, and I now struggle to get diary time. A third CEO engages me with such vulnerability and shows their human side, and yet is so aloof with their team that it simply baffles. Like with my kids, the relationships are all different and yet even after a few interactions (as long as they involve a connection) I find myself willing to walk into battle with any one of them… and their people. Even if spurned, all it would take is a phone call and I’d be there at their side once more.

Maybe the former bank chief was right. If loving my clients means sticking with them through the good times and the bad, when I’m needed and when I am superfluous, wanting the best for them even if it means we need to be apart, and thinking incessantly and simultaneously about the ‘what’ they are doing, ‘how’ they are doing it and the underlying ‘why’, then maybe love is critical to Vibrance’s success. But, is it indeed love?

I’m sure someone will want to point out the obvious… that I can’t feel for my clients what I feel for my family. I am not naïve. But perhaps love comes in degrees. Irrespective of what we call it, I think that I might take the advice to heart and regularly question it of both myself and all the Vibrance people. Because if we don’t love our clients, then how can we advise them without fear or prejudice? If we don’t love our clients, then why the hell did we choose this profession? If we don’t love our clients, how will we ever expect them to love us back…

Author

Sahil Merchant
Sahil Merchant

A proven entrepreneur, an innovator, and an expert in agility, growth and new talent. Founded and built McKinsey’s digital and data practice in Australia & New Zealand.