Empower the Front Line to Lead

Adapted from “The Fearless Front Line: The Key to Liberating Leaders to Improve and Grow Their Business” by Ray Attiyah (Bibliomotion, 2013).

By Ray Attiyah

Transitioning leadership of the day-to-day aspects of the business to the front line is rarely as easy as simply saying it needs to occur. The goal is not to dump responsibility in the lap of the front line and then dash to an office to start thinking of improvement opportunities. Effective leaders want to transition responsibilities so the front line is always capable of undertaking them. Then leaders can start planning proactive improvements for the front line’s systems and processes.

There are three practical ways to shape the leadership culture:

1. Raise the Bar of Excellence

Leadership is an interpersonal development of trust and rapport that inspires a higher standard of performance. So, to foster a fearless front line, leaders need to shift from spending time with the wrong people—the organization’s worst and neediest performers—to the right people—the organization’s top performers. Front-line leaders can rekindle the motivation of disenchanted top performers with a simple shift of attention and simple actions such as pursuing their suggestions and publicly giving them credit for their ideas. Who gets the lion’s share of a leader’s attention has great impact on the organization—the full impact can be explained by a concept called 10-80-10.

In my experience, employees in every department of every organization can be segmented in the following way:

  • 10 percent top performers
  • 80 percent followers
  • 10 percent draggers

Top performers are just that: those employees who consistently excel at their most-value-added functions.

Followers are the majority. They have a genuine desire to perform well, but they simply need a model to follow to raise the bar of excellence.

Draggers are low-performing individuals inspired to change only when absolutely necessary— and maybe not even then.

Too often, managers begin to reduce their standards to account for their lower performers. These managers may have good intentions, but all too often, the new systems are counterproductive, as they reduce the performance of top performers.

2. Foster Quick-Win Success

Quick wins solve problems rapidly to remove chronic frustrations. They are initiatives intended to spark confidence and trust by tackling obstacles that have become institutionalized. The most successful quick wins are those that resolve the problems people have been managing around on a daily basis.

Leaders must prioritize possible initiatives according to a set of specific criteria. Applying these criteria to opportunities ensures that the selected initiatives are the ones most likely to spark confidence among individuals and across departments:

  • Likelihood of success—Quick-win projects must affect the beliefs and behaviors of front-line employees, so they must have a strong (or almost guaranteed) likelihood of success.
  • Visible symbol of success—Quick-win projects must visibly solve a problem so front-line employees can see its value.
  • Scalability—Quick-win projects must provide an example of how to create a new improvement standard among other individuals and in other departments.
  • Teamwork model—Quick-win projects must provide an example of how to bring people together toward a common goal.
  • Customer satisfaction focus—Quick-win projects must work to improve customer satisfaction.
  • Management model—Quick-win projects must be significant enough to align management systems and leadership behaviors to a fearless front line.

Be careful not to gravitate toward the performance-based quick wins. It may be enticing to go for projects that have the immediate impact of bolstering short-term financial performance, but quick wins strategically selected for their ability to remove frustrations and inspire action add the most value for long-term organizational sustainability and growth.

3. Implement Daily Huddles

Leadership and management also connect in the daily huddle, a forum where leaders can change the type of conversation they have with their employees. Every day at a set time, all members of the front-line team, including the front-line leader, congregate in the same location to openly discuss daily topics, daily and general performance objectives, and reactive improvement suggestions and plans.

Daily huddles produce three outcomes:

  • Behavior modeling
  • Communication in a common language
  • Raised bar of excellence

These three outcomes occur in the process of identifying and executing quick-win projects. Huddles should provide more than enough quick-win opportunities, as long as front-line leaders (and top performers) ask the right questions and gather the right data.

In my experience, the simplest and most effective question leaders use to uncover quick-win opportunities is, “What are your biggest obstacles on a daily basis?” Many of the most immediate front-line quick wins come from removing clear obstacles that have made simple procedures unnecessarily complicated. When front-line employees describe in detail the obstacles that have been preventing flawless execution, they provide raw data for a front-line leader to plan a quick win fearlessly and open a space for modeling new behavior.

Each interaction a leader has with her team is an opportunity for her to change her front line’s personal beliefs, set new standards of performance, and develop her team’s problem-solving skills. So in the daily huddle, leaders need to be cognizant of the types of questions they’re asking and how.

The second outcome of daily huddles is a common language. That can be achieved by focusing on two simple yet powerful standards: what went well (WWW) and what needs improvement (WNI).

Start first by focusing on what went well. That reinforces the positive value of employees’ daily behaviors. It gets them to see the value of their efforts. It also allows employees to transmit to their coworkers information related to strong performance; that, in turn, is a way to set new standards.

Against the positive backdrop of what went well, employees can confidently focus on what needs improvement from a more critical, neutral mindset. Without creating a positive context, examining what needs improvement could be seen as an indictment of poor performance, especially in a group setting.

In the course of establishing new norms, front-line leaders need to engage top performers to extend that simple invitation to participate. From my experience, as top performers are engaged, that engagement sparks confidence in others, who then become more willing to voice their opinions and ideas during the second or third week of huddles. The more involved and invested everyone on the team becomes, followers and draggers (often the most cynical of the bunch) build confidence in themselves and in the group. Over the years, numerous experiences have convinced me that huddles truly simplify management activities. When your entire team is involved and engaged, they become stakeholders in their outcomes and the responsibility for those outcomes is shared.

Adapted with permission from “The Fearless Front Line: The Key to Liberating Leaders to Improve and Grow Their Business” by Ray Attiyah (Bibliomotion, 2013). For more information, visit http://www.amazon.com/Fearless-Front-Line-Liberating-Business/dp/193713461X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1351869000&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Fearless+front+Line

Ray Attiyahis founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Definity Partners, a training, process, and leadership improvement firm. Attiyah’s business expertise comes from hands-on experience in engineering, operations, and management leadership roles in manufacturing and service businesses, including Johnson & Johnson, Johnson & Hardin and UPS. 

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