As a leader, you have great ideas. You make decisions every day about how your team or your division will operate. Are those ideas and decisions in touch with what’s happening on the front line? If not, you may be setting yourself up for an organization full of cynicism and turnover – which leads to dissatisfied customers and lower productivity. In this video, we’ll look at what you can be watching for as a leader to avoid this danger zone.

Why leaders are out of touch…

I have a love/hate relationship with the show Undercover Boss. So much so that my family has stopped watching with me, as I become a bit like a rabid sports fan, shouting at the screen.   

If you haven’t seen it, in each episode a CEO or senior executive goes undercover to do some of the front-line jobs in their company. On the one hand, I love the courage of the leaders who take on this project. And I love the insights they gain. But it makes me absolutely crazy to see how much they don’t know about what’s happening on the front lines in their organizations. In episode after episode, the leader discovers some policy or procedure that has really awful unintended consequences. It makes me want to throw things.  

When leaders are out of touch with the front lines, their decision-making suffers. They end up with policies and procedures that look good on paper, but don’t actually work in the real world. And no one tells them. The result is a truly horrible employee experience.  People become disgruntled, cynical. When staff are that disengaged, of course customer service and productivity suffer. The leaders themselves get painted as uncaring, out of touch, the bad guy in the story. On all fronts, the costs of being out of touch are absolutely huge. 

The thing is, I don’t think most leaders mean to be out of touch. Most leaders I know truly want to know what’s happening in their organizations. They want to know what’s not working. They want to make good decisions. They want to have policies and procedures that make sense both in the board room and on the front line.  

The challenge is that there are deep human dynamics at play behind this situation. 

Getting past them requires a conscious effort. It takes creating a culture of engaging leadership – one that prioritizes working in partnership at all levels in the organization. It’s not enough to say, “my door is always open.” Leaders need to put intentional practices in place to foster open communication. They need to create a culture of listening, asking and seeking input. They need to create the conditions for people to share information, and to speak truth to power.

Leaders also need to create a culture of reality-testing. This was the missing ingredient in the Undercover Boss episode that prompted this note. In a food service business, the top management had set a benchmark that customers needed to be served – from placing their order to receiving their food and change – in 45 seconds.  When the undercover boss tried to meet this expectation, she discovered how completely unrealistic it was. After several customer interactions, she simply could not do it. Which begs the question: Did anyone at HQ even test this procedure before they rolled it out?  Did anyone go to a store and role play it?  Heck, even trying it out in the office kitchen might have given them some perspective.  Now, maybe they did test it, and there’s something we don’t know – I’m not sure. But I do know that too often leaders come up with ideas that seem great, but don’t actually work in the real world. And that the pain of that could be avoided with some experimentation and testing. 

Leading an engaging and reality-testing culture starts with you. It takes cultivating your internal executive presence, so you’re seeking out information – and so that you’re open to whatever comes your way. This is especially important when the information isn’t what you want to hear. 

Creating that in yourself is only the first step.  The next piece is coaching your team members to cultivate this for themselves. Helping others build their own open and reality-testing executive presence requires the next level of skills for you. Beyond that there are more levels, coaching your reports to coach their people, and so on. Each step you take in your career provides an opportunity for you to expand your skills by another degree, from doing, to coaching, to coaching the coaches. 

Unfortunately, very few organizations provide systematic support for this kind of leveling up. Managers are left to learn on their own – which, frankly, is insufficient. That’s why employee engagement hovers below 40%. That’s why Undercover Boss can continue to put out episode after episode. That’s why the trope of the bad boss, or out-of-touch leader is so pervasive.  

It truly does not have to be this way. If you want to be a different kind of leader, that is absolutely possible for you. I can show you how. Click here to book a call with me today and let’s talk about what that could look like for you.

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