Leaders we deserve: The WordPress example

August 26, 2007

giant-despair.jpgThis weekend the WordPress internet company ran into serious delivery difficulties. It received a flood of encouraging messages from its customers. The company had earned considerable goodwill through its unwavering customer-orientation. This provides insights into exemplary corporate leadership

In a few years the WordPress organization has signed up over a million bloggers. Subscribers this weekend faced life without a fully-functioning service from their fast-growing provider. That’s a lot of disappointed bloggers. No doubt there were many whose anger and frustration boiled over towards Word Press and the world in general.

However, it seems that quite a lot of people reacted with considerable goodwill towards the company. My own reaction echoed a substantial number of customers who sent emails to Word Press. One typical one came from member advertboy:

Thanks for the heads up.. I completely understand it has nothing to do with WordPress but rather your datacenter providers. I hope you are getting compensation from your datacenter provider …, this is really an unacceptable outage for any business.

Other emails described the fears that the user had been responsible for loss of contact with WordPress, and the subsequent relief to discover there was someone out there caring. Despair turns to hope.

During the night, the team at WordPress continued to work. Tellyworth found time to reply to queries:

The problem wasn’t a hacker, virus or anything malicious like that. We’re still not sure but it looks like a failed upgrade at one of our providers. It hasn’t affected our servers, just network traffic to and between them. Intermittent network problems are still affecting some people, and that will probably continue until after the scheduled maintenance

Unconditional trust

The company seems to have achieved something special within its global network of subscribers. Subscribers? Customers? Members of an extended family? Corporate speak falls short of what’s going on here. To be sure, many corporations say that the customer is their prime concern. But their rhetoric is often ultimately self-defeating. It dulls the senses as it echoes around the catacombs of cynicism. Customers mostly accept that in a far from perfect world, in business transactions they are likely to be dealing with the frailties of human beings intent on putting self-preservation first. Being nice to customers happens to be one way of doing business. Sme firms do their best. But that pragmatic stance is tested when ‘putting people first’ means ‘putting corporate interests second’. Caveat emptor rings as true to day as it has for a couple of millennia.

A few firms transcend pragmatism. Word Press illustrates a process within which a corporate culture is established which has behaves so as to engender unconditional trust in its business actions. How to earn trust? Be trustworthy. Easy to say. For some firms it is also easy to do because it is natural. It would be unnatural for the firm not to work through the night finding a thousand things that might, just might help in a period of crisis. The process is made easier because they already have a lot of capital earned and deposited in the psychological Bank of Trust.

I had been struck by the enthusiasm for improvement shown by the company in its communications. These tend to inform users of improvements to the service. But also they reveal a deep commitment to creativity. What Carl Rogers was describing as the human need to create, so often shrivelled up in corporate life. Only this week users were told how good things come in threes, and learned about the new visuals showing daily, weekly and monthly blog traffic.

Tom Peters was an influential guru from the last Millennium. He wrote a lot of things about excellence, much of it rather insanely enthusiastic of the virtues of being, well, insanely enthusiastic about your business life. He would have loved to have a Word Press to illustrate his ideas.

The disturbances persist

Attempts to preview this post suggest that the crisis is not yet passed. But Giant Despair is more or less under lock and key. Let’s give it another try …