Friday, September 11, 2009

Manager/Front-line Disconnect?

I can't help thinking managers don’t spend enough time getting alongside their front line staff.

The more front liners I meet – around 1000 in the last year - the more ‘disconnect’ I find between managers and front line employees.

Front line folks who REALLY rate their managers tell me their manager spends time with them. The front line employees who are critical of their manager invariably see one of the biggest problems that their manager spends far too much time behind their office door away from front line action.

This is not a surprise to me – it’s what I’ve been saying for more than 30 years.

When I started one of my healthcare jobs in 1989 I spent the first month of the job doing nothing but meeting people who worked on the front line interacting with patients. This was brilliant education for me and it felt like the employees enjoyed the experience of showing this ‘new guy’ the ropes about what they actually do.

I wrote up my feelings about that month and submitted it to my bosses in the form of a report called ‘I’m Pleased I Asked the Questions.” One of the bosses I respected most –sadly now deceased - wrote me a letter in reply that I wish I had kept.

He said this:

‘Trevor – As a manager you have undoubtedly chosen the most difficult route to lead and manage. The most difficult, but the most rewarding. Too many managers take the simple option – they sit behind the comfort of the office door and let the system take the strain. Good luck in your career.’

So here we are in 2009 – 20 years later - nothing changes it seems to me.

Why do some managers not get themselves off their backside – out of the office and talk to their front line folks? They are your greatest teachers.

Maybe it’s just me but this stuff is really simple.


Scott Peters said...


You are spot on. The post you have so eloquently written is the primary reason I quit executive leadership. Even though I climbed the ladder quite quickly, I fell hard on my ass in dealing with Presidents, CEOs, and other executives at the top of the ladder.

From my perspective, and in dealing with the highest level leadership of several companies and long-winded consultants, middle and upper management took on the appearances and realities of only protecting themselves and the company.

In simplicity terms, they (the leadership/owners) believed that cutting costs and people would yield better results in the near term and down the road. Many front-liners I've known over the past several years essentially built the companies that succeeded. From counter sales, loaders, cashiers, to outside sales, many relationships were established that were tough to measure in value. The front-liners became the first to go in cost cutting measures and upper leadership focused more on self-preservation than long-term success.

What I'm describing upended many companies in the States and we're still reeling from such moves. The contempt that many Americans have for corporate and government leadership is as immeasurable as the value of front-line employees and people that actually do the work.

As I wrote in my book that you reviewed (thank you), loyalty is really a thing of the past when considering corporations and management---employee dynamics. Until managers are reviewed and measured by their own employees and clients, we will continue to see horrific decisions in business across the board.

Many people that have Being Brands and other nonsense live in a world of ideology sans reality; that is the world that hasn't worked since WWII in my opinion. We have a lot to learn from our veterans of many wars, starting with WWI & WWII (those guys and gals are no bullshit).

Cheers my friend,


Brian Ward said...

Hi Trevor,
Too true...often the most effective ways to lead and manage are the simplest. But many managers find that there is 'no glory' in getting into the trenches with the troops. Instead, they prefer to 'manage upwards' because that is where they believe the action is, and where they can best influence decisions...including those decisions that affect their careers.

Whatever happened to management by walking around (MBWA)? Senior leaders need to demonstrate that they will recognize and reward those middle managers who support the folks in the field, and they need to do that by showing example.

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Scott. Good to hear from you. Your book ‘Dropping Almonds’ is a brilliant story of precisely the points in this Blog entry.

Front line employees are far smarter than the average manager realises. Smart managers realise their own performance is only as good as the folks they manage.

I love the idea of managers being reviewed by the people who work for them – I am only surprised this doesn’t already happen.

We have 360 degree appraisal of course but that will always be more heavily influenced by the folk at the top of the organisation. Why not have a totally ‘bottom up’ appraisal system?

When is your next book coming out Scott? – You could write one now that you have had more time to reflect on the ills of business from the outside looking in – your voice is important.

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Brian – good to hear from you. Hope you and Judy are both keeping well.

You speak with the realism I’ve come to expect from you.

I’m sure you are right that the majority of managers look ‘upwards’ and think of their future prospects rather than looking ‘down’ to learn the reality.

I can honestly say in my entire career I’ve always felt that people at the front line have far more knowledge about the reality of the ‘business’ than the people at the top.

I always felt in my healthcare career that I was in a great minority and I don’t intend to change my opinion now.

MBWA is a wonderful way to manage and I know you would practice that Brian as would Scott and so many other like-minded folks I know.

We, the proud minority, really need to keep rattling the cage … to coin a phrase mate :- )

Dave Wheeler said...


I think the reason you see leadership as "simple" is because you genuinely like people. Simple isn't easy. It requires confidence, patience, task knowledge, honesty, no ego, and integrity to name a few. Many find it far easier to hide behind the "positional power" they have.

Best leadership advice I ever got was from a Senior Officer I worked for during my time in the Air Force. He paraphrased Lyndon Johnson's quote about J.Edgar Hoover and said "You can have allies or enemies and it's your actions that determine what line they'll stand in. Me? I'd rather have everyone on the inside of the tent pissing out than on the outside pissing in" Hard to argue with that logic. After he was transferred we kept in touch and he would always ask "How's your tent Wheeler?" "Crowded but dry" was always my answer...because that's how I kept it and still do to this day!

I recall Tom Peter's phrase "Soft is Hard". You have to work hard to gain people's trust and build credibility. But once you gain that...the rest is easy!

Trevor Gay said...

Knowing you as I do I'm not surprised your tent is always crowded and dry Dave :-)

You certainly worked with some great leaders in your time in the USAF.

I spent some time a few years ago with Alan Hooper an ex-marine in the British Forces and author of a great book called "The Business of Leadership"

What impresses me most about great military leaders is how they always seem to get the 'softer' side so right as well as the hard stuff when the latter is too often the perception of military leadership.

Both you and Alan have taught me me a lot about leadership in the military and how focus, hard work and discipline are of course paramount .... but the softer 'people' skills are just as crucial.

Thanks as always my friend.

Phil S said...

Most of the best managers come through the ranks and have done their time at the coal face.
Have you seen all the TV progs. re parachuting in hot-shot managers to help out ailing businesses? Some are condescending little snots who know business but not life.

In the words of Jarvis Cocker and Pulp, "Everybody hates a "tourist""

Party On.............. Phil

Trevor Gay said...

Thanks Phil - I remember in the mid 1980's under Thatcher's right wing reforms how private sector managers were going to 'come in and shake up the NHS and sort it out' - most of them came in - took a look and got out very quickly ... they couldn't handle it.

The easiest job to do is someone else's