Where Business Leaders Should Spend More of Their Time (But Don’t)
July 18, 2017 by Jon Picoult
Imagine a place where executives could go to discover striking new ways to improve their business. A place where, just by visiting, the executives come away more energized and their employees become more engaged.
Watermark Consulting’s Jon Picoult reviews the benefits that executives gain from regularly spending time in the trenches with frontline staff, including gaining an unfiltered view of reality from employees and customers and boosting executive credibility in the eyes of employees.
This remarkable place exists in every company. Often, it’s just steps away from the executive offices, yet business leaders rarely explore it and, as a result, never enjoy the many benefits that a visit there accords.
Where is this magical space, this location that’s a veritable treasure trove of business improvement insight?
It’s the trenches of your organization—the front lines, where the work gets done and the customer experience actually gets delivered.
When was the last time you did more than a “drive-by” visit with your frontline staff? When was the last time you spent a half-day sitting beside customer service employees, listening to incoming calls and watching the staff handle customer requests?
How about the last time you rode along with a sales rep, observing their interactions with new prospects, or shadowed a claims adjuster to better understand the decisions they need to make and the tools they possess to make them?
If you’re like many business leaders, it’s probably been a long while (if ever) since you spent substantive time in the trenches, working alongside frontline employees. Unfortunately, while this is a task most managers recognize they should do, it gets pushed aside in favor of seemingly more pressing priorities.
That likely reflects a misunderstanding about the true value of visiting the trenches, because business leaders who genuinely appreciate those benefits always seem to find time to do it. Jeff Bezos (founder and CEO Amazon.com), Herb Kelleher (co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines) and Jim Sinegal (co-founder and former CEO of Costco) are among the very busy executives for whom visiting the trenches was a standard routine.
What exactly are the advantages when executives regularly spend time in the trenches with frontline staff?
- It provides an unfiltered view of reality.
When you reside in the corner office, it can be difficult to obtain an unvarnished view of the business. Information tends to get sanitized as it moves through management layers. A visit to the trenches changes all of that. There are no filters, no messengers, no selective sharing of information. You see everything—the good and the bad. Plus, you get to see it all from two key perspectives: that of the employee and that of the customer. As a result, one emerges from a trench visit with a much clearer and more accurate picture of what it really feels like to be a customer—and the employee who serves them.
- It reveals internal impediments.
The vast majority of employees come to work wanting to do a great job for their company and its customers. However, despite their good intentions, employees often get tripped up by internal impediments that are out of their control—things such as inefficient business processes, inadequate IT systems, misguided metrics or incentives, poorly documented procedures, or weak cross-unit collaboration.
These “boulders” that stand in employees’ way become more readily apparent when witnessed from the trenches. It’s a sobering experience when executives see with their own eyes how deficiencies in workplace infrastructure are essentially sabotaging employees’ best efforts to do their jobs.
- It builds empathy and motivation.
While employees are unable to move those boulders from their path, management can, which brings us to the next benefit of spending time in the trenches.
No business leader enjoys seeing employees or customers suffer. And so, when they observe pain points firsthand, it’s a very different experience as compared to learning about them from some antiseptic executive report or presentation. Suddenly, the human impact of those pain points becomes abundantly clear, be it in the form of disgruntled customers or frustrated employees. That helps executives empathize with these key constituencies and motivates them to take action. It creates an impetus for change, as executives seek to mitigate the frontline pain and create a better experience for customers and employees alike.
- It strengthens executive credibility.
While spending time in the trenches with frontline staff is important, so is what happens when the visiting executive returns to the corner office.
Skilled executives make sure to take the insights they gain from such visits and translate them into specific, tangible management actions. That could be as simple as tweaking a business policy that stokes customer or employee angst, or it could be a more complex undertaking, such as enhancing the IT systems that frontline employees rely on to do their jobs.
When executives take remedial action following a visit to the front line, they send a powerful signal to the workforce: You matter, and our job is to support your efforts. That’s an incredibly engaging message for employees and helps strengthen management’s credibility in the eyes of the staff.
- It humanizes business leaders.
Executive visits to the frontline trenches should be conducted in the most humble and unassuming way. This isn’t the time or place for pomp and circumstance. It shouldn’t be treated as some sort of regal visit by a VIP (nor should the executive expect such handling). Rather, it’s just an opportunity for one employee (albeit a high-ranking one) to learn more about the work of another employee.
Provided executives approach frontline visits with this mindset, it can actually do wonders for humanizing company leaders in the eyes of the workforce. Instead of viewing executives as detached monarchs who are oblivious to the realities of the front line, staff are more likely to see these leaders as regular people who are genuinely interested in learning more about how the organization really works.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos once said that he’s “not seen an effective manager or leader who can’t spend time down in the trenches.” Absent that exercise, Bezos noted, management falls out of touch with reality and their decisions become “abstract and disconnected.”
This is why it’s not unusual for people to find Bezos working alongside his frontline staff, be it in a warehouse or a call center. Similarly, it became commonplace for Southwest employees to see CEO Herb Kelleher working at a ticket counter, fueling aircraft or loading bags onto a plane. And Costco’s Jim Sinegal was no stranger to the front line, as he typically spent 200 days a year in Costco stores interacting with employees.
These revered CEOs all recognized that spending time in the trenches wasn’t a discretionary task. Rather, it was an essential element of their leadership approach—an invaluable instrument for cultivating business insight and bridging the chasm that typically develops between the corner office and the cubicles.
As you think about where to focus your attention in the future, don’t discount the many benefits of venturing into the trenches. As Bezos, Kelleher and Sinegal discovered, spending time with your front line tends to be good for your bottom line.