We all know how organization charts work. At the top is the CEO. Below him are the C Suite officers, usually the COO, the CFO, the CIO, the CMO or VP-Marketing (or, sometimes, the VP-Sales and Marketing). Beneath them are their staffs. And so it goes until we get to the lowest levels in the corporate organization.
And which jobs are at the bottom of the pyramid? Those with the lowest pay and least flexibility? The company’s front-line “troops.” The people who interact most regularly and most personally with the marketplace. The face of the company to customers and prospects: The customer service people, the first-line technical support people, the vast majority of the sales force, etc.
Sure, I know. They are at the bottom of the pyramid because they are not responsible for developing Strategy, or Managing people, or ensuring smoothly running operations.
But they are responsible for implementing the business’ strategy at its most basic level. And they are responsible for ensuring that the business’ core message are conveyed to clients and prospects. They are the ones responsible for making the customer feel the company is “customer-centric.”
The best strategy in the world, the best product in the marketplace still lives or dies on whether customers agree. In a very real sense, the entire weight of the organizational pyramid rests on these front-line shoulders. These are the people who must convince the customers that the company walks the walk.
Smart CEOs and senior executives monitor calls in order to better understand their customers and customers’ issues, to improve policies and products and better gauge what the next service/product offerings should be. We are regularly told that “this conversation may be monitored” to improve customer contacts, tweak scripts, discipline employees who are not treating customers appropriately, and so on.
But there is another side to the story.
For the last few seasons, there has been a reality show called “Undercover Boss.” The premise is that the CEO, in disguise, works as a new employee on the front-lines. He does this, of course, to see how well his company’s policies are being implemented and to look for any productivity enhancements that might surface.
Inevitably, however, each of these CEOs discovered several other things: 1. These first level jobs are not as easy as they look from the executive suite. (Actually, some of the best moments of the show come when the training employee becomes quietly exasperated at how long it takes the CEO/”employee” to efficiently grasp or do the jobs assigned.) 2. Some of the best productivity enhancing ideas come from the people actually doing the jobs. And 3. Just because management thinks it is treating employees well doesn’t mean the employees agree. (Changes that seem small from up above can have significant impact below.)
Certainly, the responsibility for the company rests with the CEO and senior officers. But the responsibility – and the weight – of getting the job done rests on the bottom of the pyramid.
One important path to continued success and profitability is to bridge that divide. And that is the CEO’s and senior officers’ responsibility. The most successful and profitable strategies are created with a gut-level understanding of the marketplace and – equally important – with a gut-level understanding of what it takes to bring those strategies to life on the ground.
So I would suggest that as we craft our strategies, develop our business plans, look for cost-cutting and productivity enhancing practices, we take some time out of our busy schedules and join the lower level workforce. A week spent working on the front-line – dealing with difficult or irate customers, trying to sell to busy and generally disinterested prospects, etc. – will yield far more useful and actionable information than management retreats, PowerPoint presentations, or “out-of-the-box” brainstorming sessions.