By Daniel Bobinski
If you’re in a senior management or leadership role, there’s one thing you can do that sets all kinds of positive wheels in motion. But there’s a problem. Most people in leadership roles don’t want to do it. What is this powerful but oft-avoided task? Spend a day each month or so working in the front lines of your organization.
For 30 years I’ve been preaching the need for top managers, leaders and CEOs to regularly get in the trenches so they can stay in tune with how their organizations are operating from the ground up. For example, the CEO of a hospital needs to work at the admissions desk for a day and the president of McDonald’s needs to work the grill or take orders at a register. If you run an imaging lab, you could spend an entire day working alongside the radiological technologists. If you’re not certified in operating specific machines, that’s OK, you can still serve as an assistant.
In each of these situations, a leader will learn the valuable subtleties about what really happens where the rubber meets the road.
But wait – don’t managers and leaders have more important things to do with their time? Yes and no. We learn a lot by doing. You will learn more by talking with customers and employees face-to-face in real-time situations than you will by reading customer service or employee satisfaction surveys. Why? Because bureaucratic language often distorts reality. When leaders get in the trenches, they bypass the bureaucratic filters and learn first-hand what’s going on. The result is better leadership and management decisions.
Dave B. is a friend of mine who works as a regional sales manager for a national company, and he wholeheartedly agrees that managers and executives need to get their hands dirty once in a while. Dave realized the value of this by accident. He says that after working his way through the ranks, a situation arose that required extra people at the entry levels in production. Timing was critical, and the company didn’t even have time to go through an emergency hiring process. Having started out in one of those positions many years before, Dave volunteered to help out.
“Wow – what an eye opener,” he says. “It amazed me how much I’d forgotten about what our front-line workers do each day, even though I’d worked in those positions for years.”
As a result of that experience, Dave now spends several days each quarter working alongside front-line employees. Interestingly, he emphasizes that he needs to spend an entire day at it. He says, “Just a few hours aren’t enough. People know you’re the boss and at first they try to make everything look good. But if I’m there a whole day or two, I get better insights into what’s really going on.”
Dave says he’s also careful to stay “criticism-free,” keeping a proactive and helpful attitude. “I have to ask a lot of questions, but when they see that I’m genuinely curious and interested in making things better, I get good feedback.”
Dave stumbled on the value of this practice by himself. Sadly, when I suggest to managers and leaders that they spend a full day working on the front line, they usually look at me as if I’d just asked them to swallow some goldfish. Most feel it’s beneath them or that their time is too valuable.
If they only had the insights that Dave had.
Thankfully, leaders exist that get it. David Neeleman was CEO of the discount airline JetBlue from 1999 to 2007, and he, too, saw the value of getting in the trenches. Neeleman would board flights with all the other passengers, and after the plane reached cruising altitude, Neeleman would get on the intercom and announce who he was, stating that he wanted to meet each passenger and get their feedback. After that, Neeleman would don a flight attendant’s apron and work the carts, getting feedback from passengers as he did. He visited with every passenger on the plane, writing down their ideas and suggestions, responding to complaints and telling people about some of the cool things JetBlue was planning in the future.
Neeleman did this at least once a month, and it paid off. In 2005 he won the Tony Jannus Award, a recognition given for outstanding leadership in the commercial aviation industry.
As another example, consider Greg Foran, CEO of Wal-Mart’s U.S. operations. The man regularly visits stores, and customers would have no idea that he’s the CEO because he walks around in regular Wal-Mart employee attire, complete with a standard company name tag.
A recent article in Business Insider pointed out that Foran is so interested in learning what employees need to do their jobs better, he tells them to e-mail him their input. In that process, Foran learned that things as little as electrical outlets not working were hindering employees’ productivity and impacting their morale. And, because employees see their CEO addressing their concerns, things have turned around at Wal-Mart. Since Foran took over four years ago, the company has experienced steady growth, a change from several years of declining sales before he arrived on the scene.
As another quick example, perhaps you’ve seen the TV show, Undercover Boss. I sometimes joke that they owe me some royalties, as I’ve been publicly advocating this practice for decades, but that TV show clearly demonstrates just how much senior executives can learn when they put some time in on the front lines.
Bottom line, when people at the top are willing to go beyond a facilities tour and actually do the work that front-line workers do, they will make better decisions in the boardroom.
And so, if you’re a manager or leader, why not schedule a day each month or so, working where the rubber meets the road in your company? It’s my bet that you’ll learn more than you think you will, and the payoff will be greater than the investment.
Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a certified behavioral analyst, a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. He loves working with teams and coaching individuals to help them achieve workplace excellence. Reach Daniel through his website, www.MyWorkplaceExcellence.com, or (208) 375-7606.