What Leaders Learn From the Frontline

One of the benefits of leading many different types of organizations over my 30+ year career was having a window to observe and study other leaders.

Let’s face it, honing your leadership skills is not a one-of event; it’s a process of learning new skills that are required in the role and practising them day in and day out.

I found that looking across at how other leaders practised their craft was an excellent source of learning material; I saw what worked and didn’t work and was able to pick and choose to enhance my own repertoire of skills accordingly.

Most of what I saw in other leaders was quite pedantic. They typically followed the leader book prescribed by the experts in the field and by academics who wrote papers on the subject.

It was a rare occurrence to witness a truly different approach to what the crowd of other leaders was following.

But every once in a while I would see a leader who turned their back on traditional practices; someone who was non-compliant with what everyone believed to be a requisite for effective leadership.

They loved the frontline.

The most amazing leaders I know spend most of their time with the frontline — Roy, frontline zealot

What I saw was a leader who was always with their frontline employees — service reps, salespeople, credit and collections people, receptionists and call center reps; the people who were on the organization’s line of execution and dealing with customers.

A leader who valued the frontline more than any other group.

They stood out because very few leaders see people down deep in the organization as a priority demanding their time.

Honouring and living with the frontline provides these benefits that enable leaders to perform head and shoulders above their peers.

Irritants to execution

They learn what is preventing flawless execution of the organization’s strategy; systems and process issues and other barriers that get in the way of achieving expected results.

Being face-to-face with those who have to work with the internal laws governing the customer engagement process gives them the ability to identify the grunge and dumb rules that must be eliminated to make employee jobs easier and customer service better.

In addition, this insight generally doesn’t readily come from the leader’s direct reports who either don’t know what’s going on or who want to protect their turf.

Knowledge gained from the skip level leader is invaluable and should be expected of any leader. But only the special ones get it.

Strategy flaws

They discover the flaws in the strategy; those elements of the strategic intent of the organization that aren’t working because there are barriers and practicalities that prevent it from being implemented in the precise way it was designed.

On paper the strategy may have looked perfect but in the naked light of day where people are involved and competitors prey, it is not possible to stay the course.

The frontline are often brutally honest about your strategy; they don’t hesitate to tell you what won’t work and the challenge for leaders is to listen to their feedback.

Listen to them and tweak the strategy to reflect the realities of execution in the field.

Old school leaders have difficulty moving off the tabled strategy and they often live to regret it — Roy, go-with-the-flow leader

Competitive activity and secrets

Leaders who are in the frontline learn what the competition is doing in real time fashion, creating the ability to take whatever evasive or opportunistic action required and to spot and attack their weakness.

Most leaders rely on traditional methods to obtain competitive intelligence. Periodic studies are conducted, findings are analyzed and action taken as appropriate.

But the process takes time; there is a lag between when the intelligence is gained and when action is taken, often nullifying its effectiveness.

Being with the frontline gives the leader a continuous stream of information on what is going on in the moment. This ability yields faster action and better results; lag time is replaced with real time response.

Movers and shakers

Leaders who are with the frontline constantly are able to identify people with high potential for future opportunities in the organization.

They get to see with their own eyes — as opposed to receiving reports from their direct managers or human resource folks — how certain individuals perform, their attitudes and their capabilities to offer further value.

They get to develop relationships with these people in the workplace and provide the mentoring so many need but don’t receive from leaders.

And as a result, the leader increases their personal currency and strengthens their brand as someone who is competent at spotting and developing high achievers for the benefit of the entire organization.

Employee engagement

By being in the face of the frontline, this leader is able to get a front row seat on what is necessary to enhance employee commitment and engagement in achieving the goals of the organization.

They don’t rely on, as their peers are forced to do, reports by specialists and other third parties in the field to advise them on what is needed to reach a higher level in employee buy-in.

They learn first hand what is needed to capture the hearts and minds of those charged with delivering results; they see what is needed; they feel what works and what doesn’t.

And they learn what works to engage one employee doesn’t necessarily work to engage another. Every person is different; everyone responds differently to motivational methods.

This leader knows that personalized methods of engagement are required for each employee, not a shrink wrapped corporate program applied to all.

The biggest mistake

The biggest mistake a leader can make is not be all in with the frontline where successful organizational performance is either created or destroyed.

To serve the frontline is to step out of the textbook leader herd and make an amazing contribution to their organization while those who choose to follow common leader doctrine are lost in the crowd.

Related: 6 Simple Ways Leaders Can Manage Change Better