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This Fortune 500 CEO Says Kids Who Understand This Simple Lesson Grow Up to Become Better Leaders

Beth Ford is a trailblazer for many reasons. Not the least of which is her impressive rise to CEO at Land O’ Lakes in 2018. Looking back on the accomplishment a few years later, she quipped, “When I was first named, I think there were 25 [women CEOs in the Fortune 500], so we’re killing it.”

What’s even more impressive is how she handles her responsibilities as commander-in-chief. While many CEOs — like Tesla’s Elon Musk and Apple’s Tim Cook — are de facto celebrities these days with large bullhorns and pulpits with the public’s ear, Ford relishes the lack of that visibility. She’s actually more concerned with connecting the dots between everyday family life and her work at Land O’ Lakes.

In an interview with Business Insider recently, she matter-of-factly shared how this plays out for her own family. It brought to light the need for humility and focus in a world drowned out by noise:

“It’s so important that [my kids] see the value of people who work in the service sector — especially now. They’re the folks keeping us fed, engaged, and warm. I try to convey those lessons to my kids: the value of each job and the value of everybody’s hard work.”

Let’s unpack that in a leadership context, because I think it gets lost in the hullabaloo around technology, sensational political opinions, and the cult of personality.

First, we need to sit with the idea of employee appreciation — specifically those who serve. Our economy is one grounded in commodification: Give me this thing for that. But service has another dimension. The best service cannot be reduced to “this-for-that” economics — it hinges on warmth, passion, understanding, dedication, commitment, kindness. It depends so heavily on human, relationship-building skills, and yet we frequently reduce it to a commodity.

For leaders who care deeply about compensating their employees well, this presents a bit of a problem. How can you accurately measure the value of service?

To date, we’ve leaned on things like customer feedback cards. This quickly becomes a racket, however: If we offer incentives for filling them out, the customer’s motivation is no longer review of service, but simply checking a box to get a free thing.

Those who fill out comment cards and leave service reviews without a prompt often do it because they had a negative experience. If that frames the bulk of your feedback, your results are skewed.

Here are a few ways to get around it so you can get an accurate sense of service impact:

  • Connect feedback to an action your customers are already taking — and keep it simple. For example, a coffee shop might mount a tablet near the milk and sugar station with a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” prompt on screen. They could do the same in their seating area. It’s not “in your face,” but it gives the coffee shop two pieces of critical feedback: what service was like during ordering, and what the coffee and service were like after the fact.
  • Balance customer feedback with employee feedback. If you’ve ever rolled out a review process for your team, you’ve likely struggled with the best way to secure accurate performance assessments. I’m in favor of 360-degree reviews: Have several people who work with each employee complete a review. They should come from all strata of the company, if possible. This can be used with service industry employees as well — just make sure that reviews coming in from employees are weighted appropriately, on the basis of how much work they do with co-workers versus how much time they spend interacting with customers.
  • Recognize “win” moments that go unrecorded. In service, you’ll often hear customers sharing passing praise or thank-yous that never make it to a comment card. As a leader, you should emphasize the importance of “team” so that co-workers surface this praise and share it with you. After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.

As we already know well, the service industry is on the frontlines of our well-being — or, as Ford put it, charged with keeping us “fed, engaged, and warm.” Let’s make sure that is rightly acknowledged.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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