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The best leaders know when to be led

…the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. ”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

When I was a young software developer at the start of my career, I was assigned to a maintenance role on a troubled software program that my company had inherited. Every few weeks, senior executives from our company headquarters would come to meet with executives at my and other involved sites to ponder what could be done to bring the project back on schedule and to diagnose a chronic history of missed release-date expectations.

Of course, we who worked from the vantage point of the code-face knew that the project was doomed. It was never going to deliver as intended - we could see first-hand that the original product architecture was deficient and had been poorly implemented by the supplier, in its two million lines of uncommented C code (in fact, the only comment that I could find was "The Russians are Coming!" - they didn't).

But the travelling senior executives never came by to ask the young engineers on the bug-fixing team for our opinion. Looking back, I suppose that we also felt too intimidated by title and status to take issues directly to them, nor did the culture actively support what seemed like such a bold step. And although our local management team was strong, front-line concerns passed level-by-level through a management hierarchy always seem to dissipate like sound in any organisation.

The project was eventually cancelled two years later.

During that time I resolved that, if ever I found myself in a senior role, I would always routinely and directly seek out the front-line people in the business for their views.

The front-line of a business is where the tasks of customer-care, product development, selling, marketing and business operations actually get done. The passage above from "that whale book" neatly encapsulates the reason why enabling leadership from this front-line is so important in sustaining success. Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, describes how sailors at the front of the ship sense a change in the wind before the captain, who is situated at the rear.

This mirrors what happens to a CEO and her senior leadership team as a company gets larger. With growth, the distance between executives and the front-line of the business increases. Inevitably, they become disconnected from emerging issues, opportunities and changes in sentiment. Executives have an excellent vantage point from which to observe the business as a whole but they are too far from the front-line to be current or specific about how it really operates.

For the employees on the front-line, it's the other way round. They experience subtle changes in the business environment early and usually long before the senior leadership, though they lack the holistic overview of the business that senior managers have. Front-line people are the first to know when the product doesn’t fit the market anymore, when customer sentiment is dropping, when a timescale can’t be met or when the company’s culture is starting to sour.

A well-designed organisational culture is one which embraces those front-line people as leaders. It enables the expectation that they have a responsibility to contribute to leading the company from their unique vantage point and connects them directly to leaders with other vantage points. Consequently, the business can use this collective visibility to adapt rapidly, even at large scale.

But many organisations don't see their front-line people as truly being in leadership positions. Not really. Their opinions are not actively listened to, much less do we ask them to autonomously change aspects of the company’s operating model or to evolve its culture in response to the problems that they experience.

Often, executives meet with front-line people only to make announcements, not to listen to them. Have you noticed how Q&A sessions at executive town-halls are usually uni-directional? The employees ask the questions and the CEO provides the answers. Over time, that dynamic conditions front-line people to believe that their opinions are for annual staff-surveys only.

And outside of town-halls, executives generally congregate with others of roughly the same grade level. In these narrow bands we speculate about business issues, developing plausible explanations to second-order effects without really knowing the specific situation on the ground. Consequently, the company as a whole can become less responsive to emerging issues and less insightful about its culture. Front-line people feel disenfranchised from the evolution of the business and can fall into organisational passivity.

The underlying problem here is that we mistake hierarchy for leadership. Our deep-rooted conditioning towards the hierarchy-as-leadership model means that we rarely think about front-line employees as leaders or enable them to act as such. Instead we defer to the notion that it is solely senior executives who are responsible for charting the path through uncertainty, however coarsely.

It's a dangerously incomplete model. Just as we gain in rank, we lose something too: the detailed context for how our business interfaces to the world and of how it works internally. Organisations must compensate for this loss if they are to remain adaptable. The only way to do that is to build front-line leadership into the organisation’s culture such that leadership is a blended function of both the executive and the front-line.

Act like you are there to support and deliver for your front-line people and not the other way round.

This requires a deep and sustained cultural commitment if it is to take hold. But there are some simple steps that you can take right away as an individual executive to accelerate front-line leadership within your organisation and benefit from it:

First, mentally invert your hierarchy

Act like you are there to support and deliver for your front-line people and not the other way round. You may be surprised at how profoundly this mental re-orientation will affect how you think about your business, where you should be spending your time and with whom.

Spend regular time with front-line people and actively listen to them

Make it a regular part of your schedule to meet with people from across the front-line of the business and actively listen to their views. You’ll be amazed at the insights you gain about your organisation and your front-line colleagues will be equally amazed that you actually care what they think. They'll feel justifiably far more valued, with all the benefits that flow from that.

Don't assume that no issues being raised to you means that people think everything is fine. At first, the more senior your grade, the less likely people will be to open up to you. But, with consistent and active listening over time, people will eventually lose their apprehensiveness about being direct with you.

This is why you must sustain this practice, rather than performing an occasional "listening" exercise. In time, you may well find that your least senior colleagues will talk more directly and openly to you about issues in the business than your direct-reports will because unfortunately, in many business cultures, seniority is paradoxically emasculating.

Actively support front-line people in actioning changes

Front-line leadership means that your company culture makes it easy for its people to enact change from the front-line of the business. Simply being listened to is not enough, you must build into your culture the expectation and ability to act with relative autonomy.

Therefore, resist the temptation to be seen as the heroic executive who takes on issues raised and pushes through change to the delight and gratitude of your people. This is of course sometimes the right thing to do but it doesn’t scale well and still maintains front-line people in a state of relative organisational passivity. Much better is to create the mechanisms and forums to enable them to bring about change and solutions to the issues that they identify. People will also find their work far more fulfilling this way and you will release much greater energy into the organisation.

Practice Grade-Blindness

When it comes to problem-solving, discovery or strategic planning meetings, don't flock together according to grade. Such an approach feels more comfortable, but it strips out all front-line context. The best meetings, with the best input data and the most effective outputs, always include people from various points in the leadership hierarchy, especially when front-line employees are involved too.

It’s not easy to initiate or sustain any culture-change and a move to embracing front-line leadership is certainly no exception: it requires humility and courage from senior leaders. You will feel exposed at times. Some of your senior colleagues - uneasy at the de-emphasis of the hierarchy that they spent a career navigating - may resist the change in exotic ways. Even your front-line people may do the same at first; everyone wants empowerment until they have it, when it sometimes sits less easily.

But perseverance pays off, because a business can only scale successfully - and maintain its adaptability - when it is led from the front and not just from the "top".

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