Mindset: Your Boss is Really Your Client

The old business mindset is that employees report up to a boss, and I think that mindset is old and needs to die a quick death.

In fact, the way that companies should re-think management is that all employees are self-empowered, and like their own business owner. I believe that everyone is their own CEO of one, they are responsible for their own strategy, knowledge, education, marketing, and building their own information strategies. You can read my blog post on you’re a company of one.

In fact, the way I manage a team of over half a dozen researchers is with this empowerment in mind (we’re hiring btw). I tell them that I’m not their boss, but instead, I’m their client or customer. Why? I want them to be self-empowered, take accountability for their future and make informed decisions knowing that I believe in their expertise and trust them.

Why wouldn’t management have this mindset? If you’re willing to invest your time and money on hiring the best, you should treat them as the experts they are. Of course this doesn’t come without proper definition of defining the success criteria, putting ongoing training in place and setting up a performance tracking program. I’m no expert on these topics, and am learning ever day.

So if you work in a small company or big one, remember that who you report to isn’t your boss, but instead your client. Approach your career as a company of one, and you’re the CEO. Remember, your boss is really your client –you are empowered in your career, even if you work in a huge corporation.

Special thanks to Loic who kicked me over dinner to blog this –I was bashful to share this as a budding executive, I know I’ve a lot to learn, and I look forward to the comments below to drive new thoughts.

  • This is a great perspectice.  This new way requires you to not make assumptions, clearly communicate, and look for creative solutions to challenges.  When we are in the traditional “employee/boss” relationship we fall into bad habits.  Thanks for sharing.

  • thanks for the post. this is a great way to approach boss/employee relationships and a model I try to replicate with my team as well. all employees should feel empowered.

    i also like to bring the approach of a third view: being a consumer. being in the retail space, it is easy to get lost in projects and meetings… but we must keep in mind the feeling of being on the receiving side of what we are producing. 

    i am a consumer first.
    a consultant to my “clients” (bosses) second.

  • Thanks Steve, and it was great seeing you yesterday.  Love to discuss this with your further.  Good points on remembering our final customers too. 

  • Thanks Mike. 

  • Thanks for sharing. I like this perspective because it puts the responsibility on the individual. I provide training to students and pros to help empower them to use Social Media and get results. However, it is up to each individual to use the tools.

    Bill (Dr. William J. Ward) aka DR4WARD
    Social Media Professor,
    Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

  • William Meloney

    A couple of years ago I came across a ‘seed’ idea.  When responding to my daughter’s criticism of one of her teachers I occasioned the comment that it was my daughter’s responsibility to ‘manager’ her teacher to lead both parties to a desired outcome.  While outside of the normal Teacher-Student paradigm it afforded my daughter an insight to handling an otherwise difficult circumstance.  My daughter was empowered to accept responsibility for the situation that previously afforded her no course of action.

    In the most traditional structures there is a top-down flow of authority and a bottom-up flow of responsibility.  Learning to ‘manage’ her teacher (or me ‘managing’ my boss) does not change the politic but does acknowledge the two-way conversation that is required for effective teamwork.  When a subordinate learns to ‘lead’ his/her boss then each garners both responsibility and respect.

  • Entrepreneurial workplaces like this attract the best talent. If the system you wrote about here yielded nothing more than that, it would still be worth implementing for that reason alone. 

  • Smart companies have had the insight to operate on this basis for many years already. It’s not only your boss – whoever you work with internally, the people who r4ely on your work to do theirs, should be viewed as clients too.  

  • Sally Hammond

    I like the idea of accountability, it seems lost in the workplace whether that be for boss/associate or a client relationship.  I will look forward to reading more………..

  • I agree, it’s the way we try to work. People with this mindset are more pro-active and as a boss it removes some of the anxieties that can lead to micro-management. Like you say there’s also the responsibility on the boss to act like an ‘incubator’ i.e. providing the resources, support and structure that provides the right environment for your hot house of companies! 

  • Mariaelena Sanz

    Nice aproach to empowerment, I never heard such a great and simple way to describe and implement sucha an abstract concept. Congratulations for your blog

  • Gilles Marchand

    Absolutely true. This mindset shift empowers employees, create a feeling of trust and ultimately motivates people to grow and become stronger. At the same time, a good balance of performance tracking and deliverables need to be put in place.

  • I agree in principle with the spirit of what you’re saying. Do you also believe in the sentiment, “the customer is always right”? The last thing you want is a culture of “yes men”. Spirited, respectful dissent is difficult to manage with the best of clients. Without an organizational zeitgeist that values openness, using the service provider/client analogy could damage depending on the company’s culture. 

  • Really smart thinking Jeremiah, love it.

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  • I’m struggling with this at the moment. I love the idea
    but when it comes to decision making there is no structure. Lot’s of
    quick reactionary decisions form lots of different directions and no
    contemplation or deep thinking with this structure. Jeremiah where can
    we learn more about the problems and solutions of this structure?

  • That’s an interesting idea, and one that should be adapted by employees.

    But a word of warning to the boss (Or client). You know those meetings that you have at work after the client has gone, and you slag him off. That’ll be you! 

  • Interesting idea but not sure how it will affect the team spirit…. won’t it make all the team members as competitors?

  • It’s a good way of looking at things, especially for employees who need motivation or feel like they’re not getting recognition in their place of work. 

  • It’s a good way of looking at things, especially for employees who need motivation or feel like they’re not getting recognition in their place of work. 

  • “Management” must still be involved in decision making, allocation, and setting expectations.  The goal is to define clear guidelines and allow your trusted team to be empowered to get the job in between those guidelines.  I still struggle with this too.  I’ve a lot to learn. 

  • Why can’t communication, desire, and the best ideas go both ways?

  • Fans of Chip Conley’s “PEAK” will recognize that creating an atmosphere and structure where employees feel free enough to think and act in this manner is a huge part of creating a great organization.  He and Joie de Vivre managed to achieve this with their staff in the hotel industry.  Pretty cool story and worth the read if you’re not familiar with it.

  • Interesting concept, and I’m sure it works in some places – but I’m curious what’s the difference then between being an independent consultant and a “company of one” as a f/t employee in your opinion?
    Thanks!

  • Jeremiah, interesting piece and thought. I’m wondering too what your advice is for all those people out there that want to treat their boss as a customer but have a boss who act as the roll of a boss that we have seen historically: top down, do as your told etc… It would be interesting to see your next blog on giving your view on that and addressing bosses 😉

  • patrickdh

    In similar terms, you can also have the expression – ‘your customer is your product’. A useful call for a different perspective on brand creation and management, and especially for shift of focus looking outside-in. In either case and ultimately, it’s neither about your boss, nor about your product.

  • Jeremiah,  it’s a nice metaphor, but it can also feed the delusion that you can easily change the way your employees think by just giving the relationship a label that suits your preferred choice of words.  I’ve seen all too many managers use the language of client, customer, coach, etc but then act inconsistent with those images.  And that creates a double-bind for the employees — they know there is a ‘correct’ language that the boss requires AND they know it doesn’t match their reality AND they can’t speak of it for fear of not being with the program.  If people avert their gaze when you talk with them about you being the client, then you may have disconnect between your intended message and what they are really thinking.

    I’m not saying you do any of that.  But behavior has to match words.   Asking your employees to imagine how they would treat you as a client invites empowerment, innovation, the search for value added services, etc.  And you may have to first engage each other in the conversation of what it looks like to be a clients’ most preferred partner.  For you being their client may mean an invitation to innovate beyond your expectations; for your employee it might mean that you will only be loyal to them as long as they deliver exactly as you have requested.  And that is why it is necessary to surface each other’s assumptions.

    Unless your employees have other sources of income, at some level they will agree with you, but know that they are still dependent on you as their employer.  I like the metaphor you share, Jeremiah; it just needs more than a label to become reality.

  • Jeremiah,  it’s a nice metaphor, but it can also feed the delusion that you can easily change the way your employees think by just giving the relationship a label that suits your preferred choice of words.  I’ve seen all too many managers use the language of client, customer, coach, etc but then act inconsistent with those images.  And that creates a double-bind for the employees — they know there is a ‘correct’ language that the boss requires AND they know it doesn’t match their reality AND they can’t speak of it for fear of not being with the program.  If people avert their gaze when you talk with them about you being the client, then you may have disconnect between your intended message and what they are really thinking.

    I’m not saying you do any of that.  But behavior has to match words.   Asking your employees to imagine how they would treat you as a client invites empowerment, innovation, the search for value added services, etc.  And you may have to first engage each other in the conversation of what it looks like to be a clients’ most preferred partner.  For you being their client may mean an invitation to innovate beyond your expectations; for your employee it might mean that you will only be loyal to them as long as they deliver exactly as you have requested.  And that is why it is necessary to surface each other’s assumptions.

    Unless your employees have other sources of income, at some level they will agree with you, but know that they are still dependent on you as their employer.  I like the metaphor you share, Jeremiah; it just needs more than a label to become reality.

  • Jeremiah,  it’s a nice metaphor, but it can also feed the delusion that you can easily change the way your employees think by just giving the relationship a label that suits your preferred choice of words.  I’ve seen all too many managers use the language of client, customer, coach, etc but then act inconsistent with those images.  And that creates a double-bind for the employees — they know there is a ‘correct’ language that the boss requires AND they know it doesn’t match their reality AND they can’t speak of it for fear of not being with the program.  If people avert their gaze when you talk with them about you being the client, then you may have disconnect between your intended message and what they are really thinking.

    I’m not saying you do any of that.  But behavior has to match words.   Asking your employees to imagine how they would treat you as a client invites empowerment, innovation, the search for value added services, etc.  And you may have to first engage each other in the conversation of what it looks like to be a clients’ most preferred partner.  For you being their client may mean an invitation to innovate beyond your expectations; for your employee it might mean that you will only be loyal to them as long as they deliver exactly as you have requested.  And that is why it is necessary to surface each other’s assumptions.

    Unless your employees have other sources of income, at some level they will agree with you, but know that they are still dependent on you as their employer.  I like the metaphor you share, Jeremiah; it just needs more than a label to become reality.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that employees should be allowed more freedom (with accountability).

    What do you think of them being open about their career goals and aspirations (even if it isn’t in at their current job or even company)? I see this being an outdated sense of security for a lot of companies. Corporate jobs aren’t secure anymore, so why should employees keep up a charade on their end by pretending they’ll be at their jobs for 10+ years when they know they’ll be gone in 2.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that employees should be allowed more freedom (with accountability).

    What do you think of them being open about their career goals and aspirations (even if it isn’t in at their current job or even company)? I see this being an outdated sense of security for a lot of companies. Corporate jobs aren’t secure anymore, so why should employees keep up a charade on their end by pretending they’ll be at their jobs for 10+ years when they know they’ll be gone in 2.

  • Great thought for building the great future of the employee. As customer demands for the new thing every time the same way boss asking for something new for the more success. And as one take the customer demand at higher priority ,and starts work out to fulfil those demand using own skills , knowledge and all the effort and this way his/her self growth more at the business. And the same way for the boss and when one try to fulfil the demand of the boss , then it will be beneficial for the employee as well as for the business firm.

  • I aggreed with your post, but I think this apply when you got a specefic kind of workforce/team members to manage. There are some type of people that will be motivated by that type of management culture where other will lose their landmark. It is not everyone that wants of wishes to be fully empowered.

  • Jeremiah, the underlying principle you raise here is that when employees have an internal locus of control, and an external focus for their efforts, ie the client or customer, this is what empowers people, and in an organisational context, needs to be supplemented with the context- ie organisational vision and purpose. This frees both the employee AND the boss from the shackles of control. ( Just as employees could be stifled by micro-management, its just as stifling for their boss!) If employees work in this way, leadership, coaching and alignment with the vision is the most important role of the boss, not managing and controlling. 

  • Ben

    I think people are being a bit harsh and taking the depth of the words too literally.  I have a team of sales reps and encourage them, and every new-hire, to view their job as their own personal franchise.  Because it is a franchise – they must operate under my guidelines and with my approval like any other business.  However, viewing me as a client, they must ask themselves at the end of every month…”Would my client hire me back based on my results?”  It is a powerful way to think and it isn’t intended to replace the existing hierarchy but supplement it with some free thinking, which enables people to grow and have a say in things.  I could certainly “tell” my employees what to do every step of the way, but that wouldn’t be fun for them or me.  I have three kids at home who need that type of attention.  At work; I need CEO’s who think out of the box and challenge me to think differently.  Try it; you just might have a different perspective at the end.  You’ll also create a more powerful culture along the way.  You’ll also find this is the fine line between a leader and a manager.

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  • Ravi

    I have a mixed feeling about the above statement. While the idea of self-empowering the employees is good, the idea of making the boss a client is bad. It’s paradoxical for me, because, if I’m told to run the company as a CEO, then I’ll run it not FOR my boss but the way it aught to be run. I’m not saying that I do whatever I want and the way I want it. Neither am I doing things to keep my boss happy. All I’m saying is that I’d do it the way I feel it could be done. I have a boss to guide me, and help me wherever I am stuck, but beyond that, I would love to take the onus of ensuring that everything falls in place the way it should and take the company to greater heights.
    Making my boss my client gives me the feeling that I am working FOR HIM, or BECAUSE OF HIM… That’s the last thing I’d want my juniors to think of me.
    I’d much rather be their guide, and take responsibility to lead them to the right path, not just for the company they are in right now, but for the future…

    We are talking about relationships. One that employees have with the organization they are working in and the other, the relationship with their bosses. The problem occurs when bosses treat their juniors like they themselves are clients and all their instructions be followed to the “t” and no questions asked. They get dominating and the this disrupts everything.

    Maybe, you could sequel this write-up with another on how the boss should see his employees!!!