LEADING FROM THE FRONTLINES
“Our best ideas come from clerks and stockboys.”
– Sam Walton, Founder of Walmart
If you want to grow as a strategic leader you need to immerse yourself in the frontlines. In 2010, I became the SVP of Store Operations at Sports Authority, taking over the responsibility of 470 stores and the 15,000 store associates, who collectively created the customer experience for over 50 million customers a year. I had never run store operations, or managed 15,000 people, and yet, I was put in charge of driving the efficiency and effectiveness of 15,000 store associates. Where to begin?
I spent three weeks traveling the country, visiting over 30 stores. I worked side-by-side with hundreds of associates, putting on my store-issued Sports Authority red polo and name tag, rolling up my sleeves, opening stores, unloading trucks, merchandising stores, servicing customers, reviewing tapes of shoplifters, pulling down and putting up advertising, and closing stores. I immersed myself in the front lines. Only by immersing myself did I honestly see and experience the store operations from the perspective of the customers, which were the store manager, and associates. I experienced their pain, saw the opportunities they saw, and built an appreciation for all that happens in a store. I not only gained perspective but also gained the respect of the store associates.
Only after I had immersed myself in the frontlines, could I begin thinking through, evaluating, and solidifying the strategies necessary to drive the efficiency and effectiveness of the 470 stores.
Why do you need to immerse yourself in the front lines?
The ideas, perspective, context, relationships, and experience are so rich when you spend the time to be present in the work of those whose job it is to make customers happy. Over and over again, I see people in leadership positions neglect to spend even a little of their time on the frontlines. Don’t be one of those people, be a strategic leader and immerse yourself in the frontlines.
HOW DO YOU IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE FRONT LINES?
Just show up and do it. Whether it is putting on the headset in the call center, serving customers in stores, packaging shipments in the warehouse, or spending the weekends at an event with the marketing team, you need to immerse yourself in the frontlines. When you do, here are some best practices to get the most out of the experience.
First, just experience
Get the sweat going, go through the training, and do what your frontline peers do. Be present and experience the experience.
Put your thinking cap on
Once you get going, think through where you see inefficiencies and areas to improve. Ask your frontline peers and customers, where they see improvement opportunities, what their main issues are, and what they wish would change. Do you already have a potential improvement in mind? Play out scenarios of the improvement with your frontline peers and customers…” what would you think about if we did…or, came out with this product? Use your frontline time to generate new ideas, make existing ideas better, and cycle and iterate through ideas.
Make your peers and customers the leader
One of my favorite frontline questions was to ask my frontline peers and customers, “If you were the leader of this company, what would you do?” You’ll be surprised at the thought process, clarity, and richness of their responses.
Use your product or service
Experiencing the customer journey, pains, joys, and overall impression of your product or service provides the context and hopefully clarity on what needs to be improved. And, if you have a business-to-business product or service, flip yourself around, and see if you can spend a few days with some key customers to get their feedback and see their experiences with your product or service.
The relationships you build on the frontline will become some of the most rewarding relationships you’ll build in your professional career. The relationships you build become your frontline sounding board for ideas, honest feedback, ways to best implement strategies, and keeping a pulse on the frontlines. In the future, they’ll come to you with ideas, issues, and advice.