Does This Make My “S” Look Big? True Customer Focus

I’ve led dozens of learning programs on being a Trusted Advisor.  One thing I’ve learned: without a doubt, the most popular element of the Trust Equation is Self-Orientation.

By “popular,” I mean it’s the one most people identify as a huge opportunity for improvement. Which makes sense, since it’s deliberately placed in the denominator to highlight its ubiquitousness.

Simply defined, self-orientation is about focus. If someone says about you, “I trust that she cares about _______” and fills in the blank with something that relates to them, then your “S” is little. And that’s good.  (“I trust that she cares about how this project will impact my career”; “I trust that she cares about what’s best for the team”; “I trust that she cares about our reputation.”)

Alternatively, if the words that complete the sentence relate to you in any way shape, or form, then you’ve officially got a Big “S.” And that’s bad. 

We all know the stereotypical used car salesman – a classic “Big S” caricature. He’s disingenuous, in it for himself, armed and ready with manipulative tactics to get you to do what he wants. As I’ve come to better understand what “S” is all about, I’ve come to appreciate its subtlety. In reality, self-orientation sneaks into our interactions with others in more insidious ways. This means keeping it small can be challenging.

Think of self-orientation as referring to two levels of focus: results and needs.

High Self-Orientation Level 1: Results

Most of us are pretty clear about the results dimension–the more obvious of the two. We generally know what we should be doing to be other-focused in this regard. “Little S” strategies include:

asking lots and lots of questions from a place of curiosity to figure out what success really looks like

negotiating for true win-win,

doing the right thing, even if you’re incented otherwise. The latter includes the provocative notion of referring a client to a competitor if the competitor could do better for the customer.

“Big S” results behaviors (the bad ones, remember) include rushing to a solution, making a bad first deal, or “hoarding”—time, resources, ideas. “Gigantic S” equals stereotypical used car guy.

High Self-Orientation Level 2: Needs 

The other dimension of self-orientation is needs.The question here is whether or not you’re focused on your needs–or on theirs.

For example:

–          Are you focused on your need to look smart (and so you invoke Death by PowerPoint … or simply talk a lot) or are you focused on their need to be heard (therefore you listen without distraction, even when it’s uncomfortable to be silent for what feels like a long time)?

–          Are you focused on your need to be liked (hence you avoid confrontation—sometimes or always) or their need to have all the data required to make good decisions (meaning you’re consistently willing to speak a hard truth if it’s necessary, even when it feels awkward to do it)?

–          Are you focused on your need to be the hero (so you subtly compete for attention or recognition) or are you focused on their need to feel confident (meaning you check your ego at the door and give them the credit)?

I chose these three examples because they’re the ones I struggle with the most. Even though my “S” scores on the Trust Quotient are actually pretty low, I’m well aware of my own quirks and foibles and I work every day to manage them—sometimes with greater success than others.

What Makes My “S” Look Big? Being Human

Self-orientation rears its ugly head most often when we feel some sort of fear—fear of looking bad, fear of rejection, fear of loss. All of these fears fall into the category of perfectly normal. And they’re what make your “S” look big.

What makes a difference is having the ego strength to see it, acknowledge it, to “get off your ‘S’,” and move on.   After all, obsessing about “Big S” mistakes is just more … “Big S.”

Ah, the joys of being human.

7 replies
  1. LisaZ
    LisaZ says:

    What a delightful, clever blog article! I really enjoyed reading this one. Excellent advice couched in catchy language. Great job! Thanks for reminding me about my "S"!

  2. Dave Kipp
    Dave Kipp says:

    Exceptional post Andrea. Your observation about Big S often being rooted in fear is correct. And fear is often a result of our incorrect perceptions.

  3. Ann Kruse
    Ann Kruse says:


    Delightful post!  I have a few of those human tendencies as well.  I believe that moving from "big S" to "little S" is a maturing process.  As a coach, one of my roles is to gently (or sometimes not so gently) prod that process along.  There’s hope for everyone!


  4. Andrea Howe
    Andrea Howe says:

    Lisa, Dave, and Ann: Thanks for taking the time to post your comments. To give credit where credit is due, the catchy title is thanks to Mr. Charles H. Green. And yes, there *is* hope for everyone. I’ve found it takes large does of self-awareness and patience, with a little grace mixed in.

  5. Tom McKnelly
    Tom McKnelly says:

    Your observations are very thought provoking. The Big S is something I have found is easier to see in others than myself. In fact, I have been aware of tendencies towards the Big S in myself and I consciously work to make the S smaller. The comment at the end regarding obsessing about Big S is very apropos because, unconsciously, working on it can have the opposite effect and there are many ways for the ego to assert itself. In giving this some longer thought, it occurs to me that I will occasionally think about how I appear to others with my behavior in an attempt to avoid the negatives of the Big S. …without obsessing about it, of course… ;-}


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