Author Patrick Lencioni says the truth is simple: If your clients trust you, it’ll build loyalty and they’ll stick around.
In one of his business fables, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni, who is co-founder and president of the management consulting firm The Table Group, is determined to spread the message of just how to instill that trust.
Based on his extensive experience as a consultant and CEO, he’s tackled topics a plethora of businesspeople may struggle with—leadership, teamwork, organizational health, productive meetings and client loyalty, among others—and distilled the wisdom into simple, workable models that apply universally. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, for example, shows the reader a classically dysfunctional executive team, and then details the process as a capable CEO begins leading them, step by step, out of dysfunction.
In another business fable, the evocatively titled Getting Naked, Lencioni shows readers how simple personal fears are often at the root of conflicts with client loyalty, and how to move past those fears with absolute transparency.
Lencioni calls his business model “naked service,” a principle that “requires the provider to be vulnerable—to embrace uncommon levels of humility, selflessness and transparency for the good of the client,” according to Table Group’s website. But the results of taking those calculated risks, Lencioni believes, make it all worthwhile.
Risking the business to build client loyalty
Couple the ability to put on a brave, self-assured face and convince the client, boss or team that you have all the answers with a tendency to tell people what you think they want to hear—perhaps motivated by fear of losing business or client loyalty—and you may suddenly find yourself with a great deal of selfishness and insincerity on your hands.
Lencioni says, “The traditional approach is to go in there, prove that you’re smart and protect the business at all costs. Close the deal.” But he thinks this is precisely backward: “I say no! Go in there and risk the business.”
So what does risking the business actually look like? For starters, it means that leaders must be willing to lose business and lose face if it will benefit the client or the team. Risking the business means being willing to admit when you’re confused and ask appropriate questions, and it also means being willing to engage in constructive conflict, even if conflict makes your skin crawl. Risking the business occasionally means losing the client or team member who is dragging you down.
Lencioni acknowledges that putting all that into practice might seem terribly reckless, especially at first. “Sure,” he says, “it’s counterintuitive, and countercultural. And it’s not easy. But it works.”
Using vulnerability to build client loyalty
Getting over his fears and his ego is a major part of the journey for Jack Bauer, the main character in Getting Naked. In the fable, Bauer slowly changes his entire approach to consulting as a result of learning from a rival firm, one that operates according to the principles of naked service.
As the story progresses, Bauer observes the consultants at Lighthouse Partners as they focus entirely on their clients, telling them the uncomfortable truth (but always kindly) and occasionally having to “ask dumb questions” and make “dumb suggestions” as they try to solve problems. Bauer is baffled by the fearless, massively humbling techniques that make Lighthouse consultants a huge hit with their clients.
Lencioni explains why this fearlessness works, both for the fictional Lighthouse Partners and for The Table Group. He says, “What clients are really interested in is honesty, plus a baseline of competence. The only way to provide naked service is to let go of oneself, to have the mindset that says, ‘Even if I get hurt in the process, that’s OK if I can help this person or this company.’ It’s a revolutionary way of thinking.”
Revolutionary, indeed. But Lencioni believes that if you’re essentially competent in your business, there’s no need to fear making yourself vulnerable. And, furthermore, if you really want to be trusted and valued by team members, vulnerability is a good way to get there.
Managers need to lead by example with vulnerability
Leaders set the vulnerability example for the entire enterprise, but what does that look like? Getting clear about what you bring to the table—for better or for worse—and sharing that information with key people on your team is a great way to start, Lencioni suggests.
“The first thing you need to do is really understand yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and get very comfortable with that. On a team, really get to know one another. Use a tool like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and learn about each other’s histories. This creates a bond. The leader has to take the lead in this. When you can be vulnerable like this, you can create uncommon levels of trust,” Lencioni says.
Another major component of the naked philosophy is setting the example with a humble, teachable mindset. “Where there is humility, there is more success, and lasting success,” Lencioni says. “Anybody, and any company, can have a big run of success once, but if you’re going to repeat that over time, you need to be aware that you need to keep learning. Think about companies like Southwest Airlines. Companies like these that have amazing records of long-term success are the ones founded on humility. Instead of being enthralled with themselves, their leaders are interested in learning from other organizations, and they always respect their competitors.”
When a leader takes initiative and displays honesty, humility and teachability, that openness can create an environment where others can bring their assets and liabilities to the table without fear or defensiveness. “This is the most rewarding work situation you can create. But when people have to put on a mask and change who they are, just to go to work, that’s so damaging,” Lencioni says.
A functional team helps garner client loyalty
In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni deals specifically with the complications that may spring up when groups of imperfect people team up to do business. Many dysfunctions and personality clashes can be worked through with time and diligence, but this isn’t always the case. One bad apple can easily sabotage the morale of an entire team and wipe out trust. “Sometimes you’re going to have someone on your team who’s just not comfortable with being open,” Lencioni says. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is this person going to allow us to be a real team?’ Maybe they’re not right for your team. You have to be willing to lose someone sometimes.”
There’s a lot more to being a great team besides trusting one another and agreeing on common objectives. Once you eliminate the people and patterns that aren’t working, you have to practice working well together. So how does a team go about that? “One of the big things I see in teams is that they don’t spend enough unstructured time together, and they don’t think collectively,” Lencioni says. “Teams get too enamored with the sophistication of analyzing exactly who does what, and they don’t spend enough messy time together, just wrestling with problems.”
Many staff meetings, for example, are just taking up time employees could be using to work. Lencioni says, “Most people hate meetings, because most meetings are terrible.” Another of his books, Death by Meeting, pokes fun at that reality: “But there’s supposed to be conflict during meetings! They should be fun and interesting, with just enough structure to keep them relevant. Meetings are where a truly great team demonstrates that they know how to work together.”
Keeping it simple
Lencioni knows that much of what he says is simple, though his advice isn’t always easy to implement. At the end of each of his fables is a relatively slim section titled “The Model,” where he gets briefly theoretical, breaking down the principles from the story and explaining how readers can put the wisdom to work. True to form, he keeps it simple and straightforward.
“Samuel Johnson said, ‘People need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed,’ and I agree,” Lencioni says. “I would never want people to feel condescended to by my ideas. I am simply fascinated by the human side of business. We put so much emphasis on finance and marketing and technology, and not nearly enough focus on the human behaviors propelling those things. Our society is so fascinated with new theories and complex ideas that we automatically bypass the simple answer and look for complexity. I think one of the gifts that God gave me is that I’m not so smart that I can’t see the simple answer.”
This article was updated May 2023. Photo by G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock