Leaders who place the needs of frontline employees at the top of their priority list are the leaders who get results. They understand that when the organization wins, they win. They know how to walk the tightrope over the selfish-ego-vs.-collective-ego chasm, devoting considerable focused time and energy to the frontline workers, just as they do for investors, board members and other execs.
Prioritizing frontline workers communicates the message that “your job matters” or that “we can’t achieve our Mission without your help.” Sadly, many leaders decide their job description precludes the notion of spending precious time with employees who may report several levels below them on the organizational chart. Of course, it’s not easy. Time becomes increasingly scarce as one moves up the managerial ladder. However, another culprit often lurks in the shadows of this “who-deserves-my-time” decision: the leader’s self-interest.
When my company, Integra Telecom, bought out our toughest competitor my selfish ego inflated like a party balloon. We were the victor of a decade-long competitive head-to-head struggle, and to the victor go the spoils. My spoils, as CEO establishing his presence at this recently acquired company, looked like a sumptuous corner office with plush carpeting, expensive artwork, and fully stocked refrigerators. As an introvert, I heard the comfy corner executive suite, secured behind locked doors and monitored by multiple assistants, calling peacefully to me during times of organizational turmoil and stress.
It was difficult to keep myself out of those plush offices after the acquisition, when I temporarily moved to the city where the acquired company was headquartered. In the process, we laid-off hundreds of employees as a critical part of integrating two very different operating models; and my arrival set the remaining 1,000-plus employees on high alert.
All-hands meetings, memos and other communications seemed ineffective as this skittish organization convinced itself that the ax wielded by their former competitor was certain to fall again. In reality, I was fearful too, knowing that I desperately needed these people to continue serving our acquired customers and run the operation.
I did two things that I think helped comfort the company at the cost of my own comfort.
Everyday I’d encounter confusion, anxiety and fearful silence from frontline employees as I walked the floor, spending hours in various departments and attempting to stimulate forced and often awkward conversation. My self-conscious character made matters worse as I occasionally froze too, got tense and often reacted to the CEO’s spotlight with paranoia. That corner executive suite and the security it offered only got more tempting by the day.
One day I asked Janet, a well-groomed, middle-aged customer service rep, if the cubical next to her was empty and explained my plan to work next to her. She paused and then asked, “You’re going to work where?”
Days later, I described why the work of the call center, as the brain stem to the needs of our acquired customers, was so important. After I explained that I, as the CEO, wanted to make my office there so I could directly participate in the operational integration, Janet confided that she “had never even met the prior CEO.”
After weeks of inserting myself in the daily operations (by walking the floor and working in the call center), I made relationships and connected with many people. They saw me take calls from my wife about a plumbing problem at home. They saw me eat sandwiches as I talked on the phone. More importantly, they saw me as someone who was committed to our Mission of providing an exceptional customer experience. They saw me as someone who valued the work they perform. They eventually saw me as an ally, who was working hard to make them successful.
Weeks later, Janet offhandedly mentioned an on-line training package that hadn’t yet been implemented. I seized this moment, knowing that the larger organization was working hard to improve our new employee training. After validating its merits, I had our IT and HR departments implement the package and roll it out across the company. The package saved frontline workers, like Janet hours of time, while saving the organization thousands of dollars. This event became the crescendo moment of my time working in the cubicles of that call center.
Janet and her colleagues experienced, first hand, that, as frontline employees (not executives) they made a lasting impact on the entire company. She and her colleagues clearly understood how vital each of their individual jobs was to the achievement of the organization’s Mission.
How would things be different if I had followed my selfish promptings and retreated to my corner office?
Would Janet and her colleagues have evangelized the Mission, motivating the installers and technicians with their stories of delighted customers? Would Janet have eventually moved across the country to become a manager of a call center in another operating region? Would other departments have also brought forward their thoughtful ideas about new business processes and systems that would further streamline our operation and drive down costs? Would I still receive emails and hear stories 10 years later about how this headquarters city became one of our most profitable and successful operations across our eleven state footprint?
I doubt that all of this would have happened. But it did.
By the time I moved back home, fear and anxiety took a back seat as a sense of Mission-driven pride and ownership came to manifest the culture of those who worked in this (acquired) Integra office. These successes led to a swagger as this operation often led the company in sales, customer retention, product innovations and profitability. Fusion Leadership indeed, we converted a frightened office into a “fused” team that was committed to our Mission.