Crash Course in: going back to the floor

The organisation isn't quite firing on all cylinders but nobody can tell you what's wrong. A survey shows your people think senior management is 'remote'. Time to get back to the floor?

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

It's not about PR. 'The purpose of spending time on your front line should be to engage with staff, to listen to them and to experience your customer service,' says Jo Causon, chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service. 'Don't do it to make people think you're brilliant,' adds Tim Buckley of the Institute of Internal Communication and managing director of consultancy AB. 'Do it because you want to genuinely learn their frustrations and the challenges they face.'

Undercover or not? Going incognito isn't a good way, it can seem like CCTV or spying,' says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster Management School. 'People won't trust you if they think you are spying.' Open and transparent is usually best and the 'undercover boss' approach is justified only when there's no other way to find out the truth - especially if you have damaging service issues.

Arrive without warning. 'If you tell people you're coming they will prepare,' says Cooper. And Buckley adds: 'Just turn up and say: "I'm here to help you today, guys." You don't want to be always smelling fresh paint, like the Queen.'

Roll up your sleeves. To understand the issues fully, it helps to get your hands dirty rather than just talk. It will also earn you credibility. 'If you can look people in the eye and say you've done their job, that's positive,' says Lee Smith, director of employee engagement agency Gatehouse.

Ground rules. 'You can learn the nature of the issues, but don't identify who said what,' says Cooper. Smith adds: 'There should never be a feeling that you are there to catch people out.'

It's just one tool. 'A particular manager may not have the skills or the style to do it well - not all of us lead from the front,' says Smith. 'People put leaders on a pedestal and if you get it wrong you can be knocked off that pedestal.' 'You should have other mechanisms too, such as feedback surveys, open forums and focus groups,' adds Causon.

Make it part of your business. Get other management tiers involved. 'Experiencing another area helps you understand other people's roles,' says Causon. 'It should be a regular, ongoing aspect of leadership,' says Smith. 'Then people are less likely to put on a show and you'll find out more.'

Be sure to deliver. 'You must be prepared to do something with the results, both good and bad,' says Causon.

Come with humility. 'Don't start pushing your weight around, offer to make the coffee,' says Buckley. You're there to listen and to learn.

Do say: 'I'm the chief exec and I'm here to help.'

Don't say: 'Just carry on while the cameras are filming me.'

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