Losing Touch with the Front-Line Experience

Adapted excerpt from “EGO VS. EQ: How Top Leaders Beat 8 Ego Traps with Emotional Intelligence” by Jen Shirkani (bibliomotion books+media, 2013).

Picture this: the CEO of Subway sandwiches taking more than five minutes—300 long seconds—to make a foot-long sandwich while customers wait in line. Or imagine Stephen Joyce, the CEO of Choice Hotels, sweating profusely as he struggles to stock a cleaning cart with supplies. “I am sweating like crazy, and all I seem to do is get behind,” an exasperated Joyce once said under these circumstances.

Maybe these images already strike a familiar chord for fans of CBS’s Undercover Boss, where these and many other CEOs have been featured as they try to reengage with their front-line workers while working alongside them, incognito, as supposed trainees and newbies. The Emmy Award-winning reality TV series, averaging 17.7 million viewers, offers a treasure trove of stories of leaders who have fallen into the ego trap of losing touch with the front-line experience after too many years away from it or perhaps never having been connected to it in the first place.

What might you learn by reengaging and considering your front line? As a senior executive, it is all too easy to become disconnected from the troops. The contrast between the front-line environment and the physical surroundings of the average executive—large, private offices; dining room-sized conference tables; and private gyms or private jets—is one reason. Then consider the contrast in the nature, complexity, and seriousness of the work, such as conversations with peer executives, and, if you are part of a publicly traded company, shareholder meetings and appointments with analysts—and you’ll realize how easy it is to forget what’s going on beneath you. It is only by making a conscious effort to stay connected to the front-line experience that you can avoid this ego trap. Otherwise, the trappings of your position likely will throw up blinders along the way that can disconnect you from your core business.

A Closer Look at the Trap

When leaders fall out of touch with the front-line experience and fail to check in with the troops on a regular basis, negative consequences easily can result. For example:

  1. Valuable information on how the company can improve and increase its competitive advantage may get missed because these issues are often most evident at the front line. This is also where the greatest ideas typically are born.
  2. Poor decisions are made because leaders cannot adequately anticipate the ripple effect of their decisions or behavior.
  3. Leaders lose credibility with the workforce. People lose confidence in their leaders and question whether to follow them because they believe the leaders have no clue what really is going on in the company.

Losing touch with your front line, or even being perceived that way because of a lack of visibility, is a surefire way to lose both your credibility and your employee loyalty.

Why do leaders, many of whom got their start on the ground floor, sometimes lose touch as they ascend? Many have mopped the same floors and manned the same production lines. One would think this would make it nearly impossible to lose sight of their roots. Yet often they seem to suffer from the same hindsight blindness as many CEOs out there who came in as management and never worked a day in the trenches. Getting connected with those furthest below you takes some work and ongoing commitment.

By stepping out of the executive suite often enough to ensure you understand what’s happening on the front line—since that’s the heartbeat of the organization—you can keep your finger on the pulse of what employees need to be successful, see how they perceive your product or service, and discover the often hidden but most impactful opportunities for your organization to grow and prosper. You also may gain deeper insight into ways to better interact with the client or customer.

Learning from the Customer-Service Experts

We can look to companies such as Zappos, Nordstrom, and Disney for models on how to stay engaged with the front line. At successful retailer Zappos, CEO Tony Hsieh has a cubicle, not an office, and it is right in the middle of the floor with everyone else. And just as Hsieh stays connected to his people through choices likes this, he also has created a culture in which his people stay connected to the front line experience of the customer. According to Hsieh: “Everyone who’s hired, it doesn’t matter what position—you can be an accountant, lawyer, software developer—goes through the exact same training as our call center reps. It’s a four-week training program and then they’re actually on the phone for two weeks taking calls from customers.” These are just a few examples of how Zappos is able to live out its mantra of “Be Humble,” one of the company’s core values. This sounds similar to the Nordstrom family, who ensures that employees get experience working at the lower ranks of the company before being promoted up the chain. Zappos, Nordstrom, and Disney all have been recognized as leaders in the customer experience.

For example, Disney is very clear that the front-line employee experience directly impacts the front-line customer experience. It’s likely no accident that Disney has made record numbers since the 2008 economic downturn, while other companies are still struggling to recover. And Disney makes it look easy, whether through its amazing child recovery system or FASTPASS program, which helps park guests avoid long lines.

I learned about the child recovery system several years ago the hard way, when my then-three-year-old daughter vanished as we passed (with five adults in the group!) through a busy area of the park and came out the other side without her. It was terrifying. As our group of adults dispersed to look for her, a gentleman in plain clothes approached us and asked, “Have you lost a child?” When we said, “Yes,” he radioed to a Disney counterpart and responded to us within seconds, “We’ve got her.” And in record time, considering the size of the sprawling park. Relief. Our group was able to enjoy the rest of our day, and Disney avoided a PR nightmare.

Later, I contemplated the experience and how the park staff had been able to locate my daughter so quickly. I was informed by a friend who worked at Disney that the company had studied the park and was highly aware of crowded spots where it was easy to lose children. They intentionally station plainclothes employees in those locations, specifically prepared to look out for and secure lost children before anyone unintended might be able to do so. Thankfully, they’re also fairly astute at spotting panicked parents. So my quickly found child was no accident or anomaly, but instead a positive result of the Disney corporation staying in touch with the front-line experience.

Ironically, while most companies have a stated “open door policy,” most executives are on their own floor, with a secure entrance or receptionist “guard dog.” This reality only makes awareness of the front line even harder. Out of sight, out of mind. Yet Disney is masterful at not letting a disconnect happen—but it’s not magic. Regular visits to the front line and a healthy dose of emotional intelligence can help ensure that any executive stays connected to front-line workers and the customer experience they create.

Adapted excerpt from “EGO VS. EQ: How Top Leaders Beat 8 Ego Traps with Emotional Intelligence” by Jen Shirkani (bibliomotion books+media, 2013). For more information, visit https://bibliomotion.com/books/ego-vs-eq

Jen Shirkani uses her experience as an executive coach to identify the common traps that set senior executives and business owners up for failure. She is certified in multiple assessments and has administered more than 1,500 EQ reports to employees in organizations across the United States. Her corporate career includes learning and development roles at specialty retailer Nordstrom, Select Comfort (the Sleep Number Bed), and Bergen Brunswig (Good Neighbor Pharmacy).

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