Fundamentals to Success

John Spence

In preparation for authoring a new book, I have spent the last several months interviewing top CEOs from around the world. As I stepped back and looked across the hundreds of pages of notes, a clear pattern has emerged of what the best CEOs focus on to build a world-class company. As with many of the ideas I put forward, these are not complex concepts. Instead, these are fundamental to success in any organization regardless of size or industry. Here are the four areas, in priority order.

Employees First

Every one of the CEOs understood that the success of their organization was completely dependent on the quality of the people that they could get, grow and keep on their team. Their hiring practices were rigorous, their onboarding process robust, and they focused obsessively on building a strong positive culture. Hubert Joly, the former CEO of Best Buy, said his number one priority was “unleashing human magic.”

Some leaders think that culture is too ephemeral, or that it’s just something that naturally arises within the organization. This is not correct. Culture must be designed, managed and nurtured. To get buy-in from the rest of the organization, the entire senior leadership team, and especially the CEO, must be a living example of the culture they want to create in the business.

Remember the words of the father of modern management, Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I would add lunch and dinner, too. Even the best strategy is completely useless without great people and a culture of accountability to execute that strategy.

Customers Second

It was the belief among these CEOs that if they hired top talent and took superb care of them, then the employees would turn around and take great care of the customers. A phrase I use often is, “The customers’ experience will never exceed the employees’ experience.” It’s important to note here that, for senior executives, their team members are their customers. Do you treat them like you would like them to treat your very best members?

Business Processes

The first two elements must be supported with efficient and effective business systems and processes. People need the tools and information required to delight the member. It is depressing how many companies I see that shoot themselves in the foot by making it hard to do business with them. Remove silly rules, get rid of red tape, streamline processes and make it incredibly easy for your team to consistently deliver superior service to your members.


The belief among the CEOs was that if you take excellent care of the first three elements, the financials will take care of themselves. Again, it’s depressing how many organizations do these things in the reverse order. Everything is driven by the numbers, systems and processes are set up to maximize profits, customers are seen strictly as a source of revenue and employees are seen as an expense. This is exactly the wrong way to run a business.

An Interesting Side Note

I was very pleasantly surprised to observe a common trait among these highly accomplished CEOs: humility. Much like Jim Collins’ Level Five Leaders, they looked out the window to give away credit and in the mirror to take accountability. They use the word “we” much more than “I.” They were deeply passionate about their organization and fiercely committed to achieving excellence. And they used the word that I believe you do not hear often enough in business: love. In my conversations, it was abundantly evident that these leaders loved their people and their customers.

The things I’ve listed above, in the order I listed them, are what drove extraordinary success for the organizations I studied. It seems like common sense, but it is not common practice. Unfortunately, too few businesses have the courage to truly go all in on employees first. What about you?

John Spence is widely recognized as one of the top business and leadership experts in the world. He has been working in the credit union industry for more than 20 years and serves as one of the lead instructors for NAFCU’s Management and Leadership Institute. To find out more about John, go to