The Best Leaders Never Forget What Got ‘Em There

Why does it seem that many leaders are out of touch with the people and organizations they lead? Perhaps they simply forgot what got them there

James Nichols, wherever you are, a long overdue THANK YOU.  Although I wasn’t initially happy with a certain policy you made, you gave me a critical life lesson I desperately needed at the time. That lesson has paid me back every week for the past 40 years.  Real leaders stay close to the front lines.  Thank you.

In its heyday, RadioShack was the envy of the business world, an incredibly profitable, global 7,000+ retail store chain.  I began my career there in 1975 where I was a part-time salesperson who later went into the management training program to manage stores, districts, and regions.  In retail, we worked when the rest of the world would play… nights, weekend, holidays.

At the time, RadioShack never hired anyone in its management team who didn’t come up through the ranks of selling and running a store.  That way managers could always relate to the front-line experience of working with customers.

After nearly four years of working six, sometimes seven days a week I made it to the position of district manager and figured that I’d paid my dues and could begin to enjoy 2-day weekends like “normal” people do. I was recently married at the time, and I wanted to spend a full weekend with my wife (and later, kids).  But one thing stood in my way: RadioShack Executive Vice President James Nichols.

Nick, as people called him behind his back, required district managers to work the sales floor Saturday morning to mid-afternoon.  Not just go in and stand around but work on the sales floor as a sales employee and wait on customers.  We had to send in our schedule as to what store we’d be working on Saturday, and woe to the DM who wasn’t working when Nick randomly called to check in.

An Opportunity in Working Clothes

Sometimes the very best lessons in life are the ones you never set out to learn.  While I lamented having to work on the sales floor every Saturday, I couldn’t deny that I was learning a lot by doing it.  What I learned made me realize that I needed to see our business from a front-line viewpoint, and factor that perspective into the decisions I made.  Thanks to Jim Nichols, working on the front lines made me a more effective leader.  Here are five critical lessons I’ll never forget:

1) There was an opportunity to learn from customers. Customers thought I was a salesperson and they expected me to solve their problems. Just by engaging in conversations I could keep my fingers on the pulse of the people whose purchases paid everyone’s paycheck.  By understanding customers, I could better make decisions that impacted customers. Reality check for leaders and managers: how many days has it been since you had a conversation with a customer?

2) There was an opportunity to learn from front-line staff. Employees on the front-line understand reality because they live it every day. They knew what’s real and what works and what doesn’t work. They told me about quality problems with what we sold, and whether or not a company program was effective, and what made customers come back week after week. Stuff I would never know unless I could see the world through their eyes.  Reality check for leaders and managers: when was the last time you spent working side by side with your people for at least a few hours?

3) There was an opportunity to build trust in leadership. Most people work closely enough with their boss to develop a level of trust (or distrust) with them. But how many people have regular direct access to the boss’s boss and can have an open and frank conversation with him or her? When an employee sees the boss’s boss voluntarily do every task he or she does and take the time to encourage his or her development, trust is built. Not by words but by actions.  Reality check for leaders and managers: has it been more than a month since you spent appreciable time working on the front lines, setting a positive example to show you can be trusted?

4) There was an opportunity to build relationships. When you work with someone, even if it is for just five or six hours, you have an opportunity to get to know them, to really listen to what they have to say. When you make them the focus of the conversation, their goals and aspirations, you show that you respect them, that they’re important. When you drop them a note several weeks or months later to follow-up on something you learned about them, you become a leader they’d follow. Reality check for leaders and managers: In the last two months, how many front-line people have you made it a point to get to know?

5) There was an opportunity to learn who has potential. This first job of any leader is to replicate him or herself. Smart leaders are always looking for people who have potential for greater things.  When you work with your front-line people, you can see a person’s character, grit, and hustle. Observing how a front-line person handles customers and coworkers provides insights into how well developed their emotional intelligence was, an essential success factor in any people-facing role. Note the people who have real potential to advance in the future because you’ll need them to grow the business. Reality check for leaders and managers: how many high potential front-line people have you identified that are you keeping track of right now?

6) There was an opportunity to learn what has changed since you were there. There’s a persistent leadership myth that deceives many leaders, the myth of believing that because you once went through a particular situation or position in the past, you know all about it in the present. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past decade, it is that things will change in ways we cannot now imagine. Who saw COVID coming and how deeply it would shift the way we work?   Reality check for leaders and managers:  Have you identified the dozens of things that have changed since you last worked in the front-line role?

Bottom Line

No one who has been promoted to a higher-level job wants to return to their former duties. Yet if you want to move ahead and be successful, you can never forget what got you there.  That’s why it is a leadership best practice to regularly return to the front lines – where your customers, hardest-working staff, and future leaders are – and experience first-hand what’s happening there.

I love working with people and organizations who want to improve their effectiveness! Here are several outstanding resources that can help you and your organization to go to the next level:

  • Improving your (or your team s) management and leadership skills: Leading Through People . This acclaimed program equips participants in thousands of current and emerging best practices of leadership, hiring, and talent development.
  • Raising your (or your team s) selling and sales management effectiveness: B2B Sales Essentials (among the 30-plus courses we offer are ones on selling with emotional intelligence and storyselling!)
  • Conducting a more effective job search: Get a Better Job Faster

For the past 25 years I’ve worked with some of the world’s top employers by helping them get the most out of their talented people. Thanks to our clients, the company I founded in 1998, Boyer Management Group, was recognized by CEO Monthly Magazine for its “Most Influential CEO Award, 2023” in the executive coaching field.  Our coaching programs produce significant results in compressed periods of time.  Our extensive leadership development course catalog provides effective skills-building for everyone in the organization, from the new and developing leader to the seasoned C-level executive.  I also help job seekers, higher ed, and employment services connect people to better jobs faster. My company’s acclaimed career development tools help people navigate the ever-changing landscape of conducting a successful job search. 

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