One of the most pleasurable dining experience of my life happened recently at a group luncheon.

There are hundreds and probably even thousands of amazing Asian fusion restaurants in the world, so why does Sexy Fish in London stand out as one of the best dining experiences ever (in my opinion)? They ticked all the obvious boxes – fantastic food? Yes. Intriguing wine list? Yes. Fanciful cocktails? Yes. Beautiful design and aesthetic? Yes. Professional engaging staff? Yes – but it was something more than that.

As our group progressed through lunch, the engagement of the staff moved from slick and professional to proactive and intimate. They read the pace, the atmosphere, the flow and the context of the way we were engaging and integrated these elements into the rhythm of their service. More than one person, it was a team effort as they orchestrated a seamless experience artistically and professionally. The careful attendance to timing and detail meant that as a group we could focus on our interactions and enjoy the pleasure of good food and company in an optimal atmosphere.

The ‘something more’ was due to the staff. They were empowered to work with autonomy and purpose to deliver a cohesive experience that went beyond expectations.

The key to any successful, sustainable business model is delivering amazing customer experiences and outcomes. We know success comes from delivering customers the ride of their life. If we find a way to deliver more than our market expects, we win. (Read our last blog on the Six Obsessions of Customer-Driven Organisations for more detail on this strategy). However, to deliver a winning customer strategy we must first build a culture that focuses on driving outstanding customer experiences and outcomes at every turn. Without the culture, the strategy is just a plan lacking means of execution.

As Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Clearly, the culture at Sexy Fish is one that allows their staff to shine in a highly polished customer-driven environment. They worked with our flow, anticipated our needs, paid prompt attention without disruption, all the while seeming that it was beautifully effortless. But great culture is not an accident; it is a deliberate, orchestrated, carefully woven fabric that allows people to shine and deliver. We know that culture eats strategy eats breakfast, and we know leadership creates culture.

As leaders, it is our responsibility to build a culture that empowers our team to deliver our customer-driven strategy.

What does that mean? It means making the customer’s needs the central focus – and providing our team with the means to make it so. It means we have to anticipate those needs – both the obvious, immediate needs and the unseen future critical needs that only we can see. It means we must develop a culture of serving – not servitude – where value is created by going beyond expectations through unleashing people’s potential. A culture where we look beyond the product and focus on the total experience and the positive impact generated.

To our staff, we are not the boss – the customer is. Our staff work to please the boss (the customer) and look to us for the leadership to provide the tools that enable them to go above and beyond.

Exceptional leadership means that we set the stage for people to shine and put human needs at the heart. We place clear expectations on performance, providing structure and guidelines while allow people to have autonomy to push against those guidelines for the betterment of the customer.

Looking back on my experience at Sexy Fish, one thing that made the experience perfect was that it was subtly adjusted to our group’s nuance. I have no doubt that if we had been in a hurry, focused on getting business done quickly instead of having a more relaxed camaraderie, the staff would have adjusted likewise. It is a reflection of their leadership that the staff have the skills and training to meet performance expectations within a structure, while keeping the focus on the human element and adjusting as needed to provide the ultimate exceptional customer experience.

Business success is built on delivering great customer experiences and the feelings this engenders in customers. This can only happen when a culture of serving, of expanding what’s possible is alive in a business – and this only happens when great leaders build the platform that allows their people to shine.

To deliver exceptional outcomes, start with exceptional leaders.