Sitting on My Hands - The Real Job of a Vice President of Customer Success

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By Lauren Costella

I’ve never been one to sit on my hands. I’m not an idle person. I love solving problems, being hands on, and making things happen. It’s in my nature. It’s probably why I’ve cultivated a career in Customer Success! I want to create change and make things better than they were before, and given this very youthful area of business, it’s easy to want to jump in and take action and experiment for the better.

There’s nothing wrong with general attitude this per se, but the question is: should an Executive Leader be jumping in and being hands on? As I reflect back on 2018, I’ve come to think that my best position as an executive is actually sitting on my hands.

One the one hand (no pun intended), there’s certainly benefit to knowing the ins and outs of how things work and actually being able to do them. Having worked in multiple startups, small companies, and now a company growing to that $100M revenue mark, I’ve seen that it’s not uncommon for executives to be hands on in some way. In fact, part of the thrill with any early stage company is managing the typical chaos into something that grows and scales. And in many ways, it’s a very visible measure of productivity and success for early employees. There’s a sense of community to everyone working together to get things done, and there’s a sense of “respect” for those folks willing to jump in and get their hands dirty!

On the other hand, as the company grows it’s becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with every moving part of the organization and the team, especially as an executive. In the past 18 months, my CS organization has grown from around 9 people to almost 30 globally, with three different teams (Support, Professional Services, and Customer Outcomes (CSMs)). Locations span from the US to Japan to Australia and EMEA. Given the growth and change, my challenge has been trying to keep up with those changes, product changes, go-to-market changes, and how customers change! Quite the whirlwind to be sure. And in my attempt to try to be hands on, when I reflect back about what I could improve going into 2019, I’m wondering if hands on does more harm than good?

I recently sat down with my boss, Mike Novotny (CEO of Medrio), and talked about these challenges, and he gave me a really simple piece of advice: “Lauren, realizing impossibility is freedom.” Now, I’m not necessarily one to believe in “impossibility” so his advice was difficult to digest. But when I reflect about what he really meant by it, he is absolutely right. It’s literally impossible to know and be proficient in everything. If we could do everything, there would be no need to have support and help! And the real beauty of this advice is this: with freedom, you can focus on the right things, not everything.

There are some common traps that I’ve personally fallen into that led me down a path of either doing, dictating, or directing, when I needed to be stepping back, sitting on my hands, and listening. When an executive is doing or dictating or directing, we often miss the mark of productivity. Why? We aren’t on the front lines, we don’t have all the context for actually producing success. When we are dictating or directing without context, we force teams into situations where they haven’t bought into those decisions or executing plans, which typically leads to missed deliverables, and this is a recipe for disaster. Talk about no fun for anyone.

As an executive, my job is this:

  • Provide an environment for a Cohesive Team: a team that has trust, healthy conflict, commitment to decisions, peer-to-peer accountability, and produces results

  • Radial Transparency: decisions should be made by the team, not me

  • Sitting on My Hands: I listen, watch, but I do not decide; I do not do.

While on the surface, this may seem obvious and maybe perceived as a little “easy” but speaking from my own experience, this is probably the hardest thing I’ll do!  

First, let’s talk about creating a cohesive team. I just became a certified facilitator for The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team powered by everything DiSC. The 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive team are these:

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Trust is the single most difficult piece to build in a team. Trust is not about “predicting” how a person will act in a given situation. For example, If I tell David X, I know he’ll respond by saying Y. Rather, it’s about being vulnerable. This is creating an environment where team members can freely admit things like “I messed up” or “I need help” and the team can support that person in solving the issue. It’s having a foundation of mutual respect, so that healthy debate of issues (healthy conflict) can occur without team members looking at debating issues or questioning methods as a “personal attack.” More often than not, teams don’t have the foundation of trust needed to support all of the other areas above it. And when the other areas aren’t supported, it’s not often that results are achieved or results are short lived. As an executive then, it’s my job to ensure these 5 Behaviors are understood, maximized, and executed within the team. If the team isn’t a team, there’s no room for achieving results. The leader sets the culture and the environment.

Secondly, my job as leader is radical transparency. If my team doesn’t have access to all of the information I have, how can I expect them to make decisions and drive change? Context matters! It’s exactly the reason I can’t execute (I don’t have the context needed to do it well). By the same token, if I don’t provide visibility into the data and facts that I have, the team can’t make good decisions. Decision making should happen as close to the front lines as possible. Setting the culture for that type of work happens at the executive level. So, as an executive, my job is to make that transparency possible, give the team context to drive decisions, changes, and ultimately results! A really great book that discusses “radical transparency” and was introduced to me by my boss, is called Team of Teams. It talks about how the military incorporated radical transparency into their practices. We’re talking top, top, secret stuff being shared at all levels of the military, so troops on the ground can make decisions. And what do you think the role of the Commander is? I can promise you it’s not deciding what the troops are doing in various military raids...rather sitting back, watching, and listening. Pretty crazy right?

Which leads me to my third point. My job as an executive is to sit on my hands! I say sit on my hands because I am a talker, and as a part Italian gal, the only way I can successfully speak (at least according to my boyfriend) is also using my hands to express myself. When I sit on my hands, I stop talking. And when I stop talking, I’m engaged in listening and the craziest things happen. My team becomes the problem solvers. My team debates ideas back and forth. My team figures out the “hows” and the “whys” and the ways forward. My team commits to decisions, and hold each other accountable. They think, they commit, and they do! And we all achieve results. What a beautiful thing!

So when people ask what is my main focus as the Vice President for Customer Success, I don’t lead with net retention or revenue or churn; rather, I say “I sit on my hands.”

The Success League is a customer success consulting firm that works with leaders to drive positive team behavior and incredible results. Check out our leadership programs for more information on how you can build your customer success management skills.

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Lauren Costella - Lauren is a change agent, communicator, leader and passionate champion for Customer Success in business, since a great customer experience drives retention, growth and brand advocacy. Her expertise centers on building early signs for risk and growth, defining cross-department success plays, team enablement, operations and process, and selecting and implementing CS software. When she’s not working as the VP of Customer Success for Medrio, you can find her serving as an advisor and blogger for the Success League, an active board member for the Customer Success Network, and blogging generally about her CS experiences on the CS Playlist. Lauren has her MA and BA from Stanford University. She was a former USA National swim team member and enjoys staying active with running and surfing in the Bay Area.