How to Be a Better Boss? Spend Time on the Front Lines

to succeed in upper management, consider walking in the shoes of your lower-level workers.

to succeed in upper management, consider walking in the shoes of your lower-level workers. joann lublin has details on the news hub. photo: ap

scott moorehead, carolyn kibler and don fertman did exactly that at different stages of their careers. they gleaned potent insights that made them more effective leaders and authentic communicators.

such lessons could hasten your advancement, too. facing increased turnover during the recovery, businesses have resumed grooming executives with such skills, leadership experts say.

when mr. moorehead finished college and joined his family's business moorehead communications inc. in 2001, his parents forced him to spend a year working briefly in nearly every job–including delivery-truck driver. holding 32 positions for a half a day to three weeks per job "made me a very employee-centric ceo,'' says mr. moorehead, who took command in 2008. the company, which does business as the cellular connection, became the biggest u.s. dealer for verizon wireless phones and services in 2010.

karen burns photography

davita division vice president carolyn kibler visits a company clinic in atlanta.

ms. kibler moved up at davita inc.,dva +0.87% the nation's no. 2 dialysis-treatment operator, after she toiled alongside dialysis technicians for three days in 2007 as part of its reality 101 immersion program. now an operational vice president, she oversees twice as many divisions and staffers as five years ago.

davita is among the handful of firms that require key officials to do front-line stints so they can stay in closer touch with their troops. under an expanded version of reality 101 launched this month (feb.), middle managers and executives must also shadow employees in other roles such as dietitian and social worker for at least one day a year.

don fertman, chief development officer of subway restaurants, appeared on cbs'scbsa +2.62% "undercover boss'' reality tv show in 2010, donning a pseudonym and beard to be a "sandwich artist" for a week. he was so clueless about sandwich making that he mistakenly believed he had locked himself in a walk-in freezer.

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subway restaurants

subway executive don fertman spent time as a sandwich maker in one of his company's restaurants for the cbs tv show "undercover boss."

mr. fertman says he gained a ground-level perspective about customer service that will help the world's biggest restaurant chain exceed its 2016 goal of 45,000 stores. for instance, he says he has proposed putting sandwich artists at the top of subway's organizational chart because they "ultimately determine our success."

all three executives recognize that "the front-line employee represents a different world,'' notes l. todd thomas, an associate professor at northwood university's management school. yet other executives frequently ignore workers' unique contributions, cavalierly calling them "our greatest asset,'' he notes, adding: "assets depreciate over time.''

for ms. kibler, the stressful dialysis duty sharpened her awareness that even minor management decisions affect patient caregivers. "i truly understand the challenges our front-line teams face every day,'' she explains. "it's like a layer of my skin.''

one of ms. kibler's operational managers recently proposed using dialysis staffers differently in order to improve clinic efficiency. she says she realized the change would make facility administrators feel they needed to get the same work done with less support. she asked the lieutenant to revamp his proposal and pay closer attention to its impact on administrators, who often care for patients, too.

ms. kibler took similar steps right after her immersion experience. she became more lenient when clinics fell behind on paperwork due to staffing shortages. and she tried to plan better so last-minute deadlines wouldn't distract administrators and technicians.

during his year-long tryout rotation, mr. moorehead learned the importance of employee feedback for the top brass. one assignment landed him in the "returns" department, shipping damaged cell phones to manufacturers. when the owners' son arrived, recalls jackee eib, a veteran returns employee, staffers "didn't think he would do the work."

eric marshal, clique creative

scott moorehead, chief executive of the cellular connection, says a stint on his company's sales floors led him to change policies on worker pay.

those workers toiled in a small warehouse crowded with 30 bins. "none of the higher-ups realized it, but the employees were miserable in the tiny space'' and it quickly grew disorganized, mr. moorehead remembers. he persuaded his mother to knock out a wall to expand the space—a move that made operations more efficient.

more significantly, he saw firsthand how the wide pay discrepancy between salespeople and store managers led to worker resentment and high turnover. when he took on the top job, he changed pay for the sales staff, a decision that immediately reduced staff turnover.

as mr. moorehead advanced, he created channels for frank feedback. one was voice it, an internal website link created in 2006. employees willing to identify themselves aired complaints online and received monthly responses from executives.

but "there were a lot of petty gripes,'' such as store staffers who disliked limits on wearing jeans, mr. moorehead recollects. in late 2008, the company removed voice it.

the chief executive says he didn't recognize that was the wrong call until he tried another experiment in empathetic leadership. before a management retreat last fall, he asked 86 participants to pretend they wore his shoes for the rest of 2011 – and write memos describing how the ersatz ceo would improve the company.

sixteen managers lamented the loss of a "family feeling" at the fast-growing company—feedback that hurt and humbled mr. moorehead. "i had become disconnected from my front-line employees, especially the new ones,'' he admits. he soon restored voice it and started an employee newsletter.

subway's mr. fertman devised different tactics to reinforce lessons from his sandwich artist days. he persuaded the rest of senior management to also spend a week in the role – and consider making the mandate an annual assignment.

mr. fertman gained additional insights by conducting a dozen focus groups with sandwich artists. when he again dons an artist's apron for a week this year, he expects to be keenly aware that "they want to feel good about what they are doing for a living.''


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