in Management & Leadership

“The higher up you go in an organization, the harder it is to stay in touch with what’s really happening on the front lines,” says strategy consultant Douglas Wilson. “And the bad news—if you hear it at all—is presented only in the best possible light. How do you get the real truth about what’s happening out in the field?”

Wilson suggests in Harvard Business Review blog three questions that executives should ask front-line workers:

  • How can I help you?
  • Why are we doing it this way?
  • How are we doing in living out our values?

I like these questions. They’re pragmatic, probing and open-ended — they force thoughtful responses. However, I don’t like Wilson’s premise: An executive in a top-down workplace environment where important information does not naturally percolate up from the front-lines where execution happens. That’s a really bad place to be disconnected from! And it’s a problem that can happen not only with senior executives at large companies, but with managers and direct reports at small companies. Regardless, this is one thing that separates managers from leaders.

The way to keep important information flowing up, down and across (as organizations often are matrix) is to create a culture that will make that happen deliberately. In my experience, here are a few of the basics to doing that:

  1. Create and Communicate Purpose. The more an employee understands the larger business purpose and opportunity — and how it connects to her work — the more engaged, productive and impacting she’ll be on the front lines. Leaders must ensure purpose and opportunity are communicated and understood all the time.
  2. Keep A Hand In The Front Lines. Want to know what’s going on out of the office? Don’t be too “higher up” to immerse in the front lines. Costco co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Jim Sinegal was famous for traveling to each location every year, to inspect them personally—a task that virtually all major retail chain leaders delegate to subordinates. Costco is one of the most successful companies in the world because its managers keep a hand in the front-line execution. Executives who only do strategy are lame dinosaurs!
  3. Empower Decision-Making. When you instill decision-making with localized, front-line workers, you instill pride, accountability and collaboration. Empowered decision making on the front lines requires a definitive operating playbook, training and reporting systems. Shared values matter, too. Trust and autonomy will ensue.
  4. Hire the Right People.  Hire top people not only with the right skills, but people who believe in your purpose and opportunity. Hire people who will adopt and live out your playbook in their execution. Talent is compounding: if you hire the best people — to begin with — they’ll tend to hire more top players like themselves.
  5. Be An Open, Trusted Sounding Board. Maintain an environment where workers up, down and across feel comfortable sharing and probing for information. That means you actually have to listen to what they say, and respect them and the importance of their intelligence. All workers need to do the same with one another, and common practice begins with the behavior of leaders.
  6. Maintain a Manager-Employee Communications Framework. Define the key intelligence you need on an ongoing basis — and formally collect it. It could be a simple weekly memo, required of front-line workers or direct reports, that includes: weekly goals; progress to goals and milestones; and big opportunities. A great item to include is “executive discussion topics”…
  7. Surface Executive Discussion Topics.  There are three things an executive or manager should know from direct reports or front-line workers: 1)What is going really well? 2) What is going really poorly? 3) What decisions can we make to be better? If you can maintain an open, ongoing conversation with workers that addresses these questions all the time — and a culture that does the same — then you’ll end up with an organization where there is greater consciousness of  the things that matter most. That way you can act on them. 🙂

Thanks to Douglas Wilson for his thoughts, which prompted mine.

Final question of the day: How do you keep your head out of the sand and connected to the front lines?

Photo: Peter