Leading from the front-line

We often get asked about staff engagement, especially at the moment with huge swathes of the working population working from home for the majority of the time. Often the questions all cover the theme of making sure staff are doing OK, without coming off all managerial.

Questions like, how can we engage our staff? How can we make sure they are coping at the moment? How do we make sure it doesn’t feel naff and just ticking a box?

I’m glad you asked because there’s a few things you can do to make sure that people are doing OK, without effectively having to interview them over Zoom. Eugh! Can you imagine…

Let’s start with you though… 

This is going to sound very counter-intuitive, when we’re actually talking about how your staff are feeling, but actually knowing how you come across is key. Why? Because if this isn’t handled the right way, you’ll actually have people feeling suspicious of you and telling you it’s ‘fine’, rather than being able to open up and tell you what’s actually going on for them,.

Let me give you an example, because I have to be honest and admit I’ve not had a good record with managers and senior leaders when I’ve been a front line worker. I know it’s hard to believe, but my ‘tell it like it is’ communication style, usually went down like a fart in a lift. And, some of this was definitely my stuff around authority, but a lot of it was also the fact that when I worked on the front line, senior leaders were rarely seen. 

I very seldom ever saw a senior leader who was approachable or who wasn’t focused on stats. Very, very rarely did I engage with one, and even rarer still, was I ever asked what I was seeing on the front line, outside of a quality check. To me, they didn’t want to know, unless, of course, the shit was about to hit the fan.

I know the reality is more nuanced that this, and stuff that’s important to someone on the frontline, might not raise a flicker of interest further up the pecking order, especially if it’s not in the data. But, there is growing pressure on managers and senior leaders to be able to manage their staff’s mental health, and that means taking more of an interest in the person, rather than the stats.  

Tough questions for the full picture

 And there are some tough questions you need to ask yourself, before we get into what else you can do.

*Deep breath* Let’s start with the big one – are you sure the data you have in front of you is asking the right questions?

The reason I ask this, is because more often than not, the data I see senior managers looking at, bears no relation to what the reality is on the front line. It’s diluted through the layers before it reaches you, or it can be looking at the wrong things, or looking at a small slice of the whole picture, like looking down the wrong end of binoculars.

Phew! And now for the awkward questions that sit behind this one:

  • How many senior leaders have done the job on the front line? If they haven’t, how do they know what to look for in terms of what’s working and what isn’t?
  • Who sets those measurables and how do you know if they are working?
  • How many of your senior leaders are interested in the real stories from the front line?
  • How many have used this information to improve a process, rather than the stats and data?

With the businesses I’ve worked with, precious few, unfortunately. It’s proving to be a consistent and pervasive problem. This brings me back full circle to the initial question, which means the data you’re looking at isn’t giving you a full panoramic picture of what’s happening for your staff.

Computer says maybe…

How does this impact on your staff? Well, it inevitably masks problems, causing feelings on the frontline that actually you’re not interested and nothing will ever get fixed. That’s never going to be good, as that feeling then gets passed on to customers, when they complain about that issue. Your frontline worker gives a throwaway comment about ‘them’ being aware and nothing having been done. And, ta-da! It’s another new complaint.

That’s not to say data is pointless. It’s not. Data, can be great if it makes up one small part of your process for feeding things back up the line. But, if it doesn’t, it could be the best looking process on paper, but be neglecting your staff. People make up a huge percentage of it and if it doesn’t include feedback up the line or a process for you to see all of it at work,  you’ll miss those problems in the data.

Getting your hands dirty

I’m not for one moment suggesting that we do away with all senior leadership and we all become a flat management structure. Nor am I saying the data needs to be binned. But, I do advocate that leaders take their lead from the frontline and start to use it as a tool for insight, in conjunction with Root Cause Analysis and management stats.

It’s not just a question of listening to a sample of calls, although that can help you get a grasp on what your staff are seeing every day. It’s actually taking the time to engage with them on a regular basis, and listening to what they have to say. What are they seeing? What’s working and what isn’t? What would make their lives easier? And then working with that valuable intel.

It’s also getting your hands dirty. Dare I say it, but when I was a manager, I jumped on the phones. Yes, my boss tried to stop me, but as someone with a problem with authority, you can imagine how much he was listened to. But, it meant my team saw me leading from the front. It meant I could listen first hand to a customer, and I could get a feel for what was working and what wasn’t. For me, I wasn’t just theorising on what was working, or not, because I learned what the workarounds were in the stats and the telephone system, so no-one was able to pull the wool over my eyes.

That’s why stats, data and reports will never be a replacement for actually getting your hands dirty and listening to those that are on the front line. It really does pay to engage with your front line meaningfully. They will tell you what you need to know, they’ll help you fathom out why things aren’t working and it’ll save you hours of poring over data for a clue. What’s more, it earns you Brownie points galore. What more could you want? 

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