The Next Generation of Customer Success Leadership Image

The Next Generation of Customer Success Leadership

Which starship Enterprise captain is your favorite: Kirk or Picard?

I embedded a poll here just for kicks; can’t wait to see the results. (If your captain is losing, share this post with your Trekkie friends! And my apologies to Archer, Pike, and Riker fans.)

Choose your captain

James T. Kirk

Jean-Luc Picard

I like them both, but I think it’s so interesting how different they are. Captain Kirk would overcome any challenge through sheer will and indomitable optimism. He wasn’t afraid to bend the rules for the greater good. In the “final frontier” there isn’t a roadmap to follow. No one has gone there before, and you need a trailblazer and pioneer to make decisions—sometimes on pure instinct.

Captain Picard was different. To fans of the original series, he could come off as cold and calculating, but underneath he was just as committed to the mission and spirit of the Federation—and the humanism of Gene Roddenberry by extension. But in the world of The Next Generation, Picard knew the value of the Prime Directive—of adhering to a strategic framework in service of the overall mission.

I don’t think one is better or worse in general, but I do think Kirk was right for the original series, but Picard was the captain we needed for The Next Generation. In the customer success movement, we’re in the middle of the same transition Star Trek made—from a Kirk-type leader to more of a Picard.

Customer Success in the 2010s vs. Customer Success in 2020—and beyond

In a lot of ways, customer success is growing up. We’ve evolved from being mostly an individual department focused on churn avoidance to a growth engine predicated on a companywide strategic focus on the customer and their outcomes and experiences. That’s the big theme of Pulse (our big, annual conference) this year: what does the future of business look like with the customer at the center? You’ll hear all about these trends beyond just the leadership question at Pulse, but I wanted to give you a sneak peek with this post.

Click here to see the full Pulse 2019 agenda

As CEOs and CS teams go through this transition, both sides are trying to determine the type of leadership needed for this “2020” phase.

Nearly every day, I get requests from CEOs who are unsure whether the leader they have is the one to take them to the next level. And at the same time, I hear from CS leaders wondering if their company is approaching CS from a 2020 perspective.

So how do you sort out 2010 leaders from 2020? I put together this quick table based upon my experience and I welcome your comments.

Customer Success 2010

Customer Success 2020


Focused on defense (e.g., saves, prevention, etc.)

Focused on growth.


Hires from Support or Account Management exclusively; reliant on “rock stars”

May also hire from management consulting, customer domain, product or other areas

Org Philosophy

Executes CS entirely from within their team

Proactively aligns with rest of company to make CS > CSM


Relies on headcount to scale or is inhibited by headcount restrictions

Understands larger financial model and helps with (1) self-funding paid CS or (2) delivering clear ROI from CS

Sales Alignment

Complains about the Sales team

Deeply aligned with the Sales team

Product Alignment

Preoccupied with filling gaps in the product

Creates detailed processes and analytics to collaborate with product team


Measures NPS and retention solely

Looks at leading indicators (e.g., customer health) and growth metrics (e.g., net retention)


A purist about what can/cannot be included in comp (e.g., CSMs can’t have incentive comp)

Evolves thinking on comp based upon stage/strategy of business

Customer Lifecycle

Interactions happen mostly on a scheduled, calendar basis (e.g., monthly check-in)

Augments scheduled interactions with data-driven triggers


Thinks process is overrated and it’s just about having people “use their gut”

Believes strong people can be augmented with repeatable processes

Like I said, 2010 leaders have played a huge role in shepherding the customer success movement into this new 2020 stage, but I definitely think it’s time for a Picard-style 2020 leader in most companies. Which style leader does your company have?

We’ll be talking a lot about customer success leadership at Pulse 2019. It’s not too late to get your ticket—I encourage you to come if you’re interested in hiring a CS leader or furthering your career along this pathway.

Click here to get tickets to Pulse 2019