I'm not asking you to swallow goldfish

Mar 08 2004 by Dan Bobinski Print This Article

For more than fifteen years now Ive been preaching that top managers, leaders, and CEOs need to get in the trenches at least once a year. For example, the CEO of the Kroger grocery chain needs to work in the checkout lines for a day; the President of McDonalds needs to take orders at a register; and plant supervisors in manufacturing environments need to work a few hours in the entry-level positions alongside everyone else. You get the idea.

Why do this, you ask? Dont managers and leaders have more important things to do with their time? Yes and no. We learn by doing. We learn by talking with employees and customers. Too often, bureaucratic communication filters get in the way of the truth about whats going on, and the result is a distorted view of reality. But when leaders get in the trenches, they bypass the filters and learn first hand about whats going on in their company. The result is better leadership and management decisions.

Dave B. is a friend of mine who works as a regional sales manager for a national company, and he agrees with the need for managers and executives to get their hands dirty once in a while. He himself learned the value of this first-hand. Heres what Dave has to say about it:

After working my way through the ranks, a situation arose that required extra people at the entry levels in production. Timing was critical, and we didnt even have time to go through an emergency hiring process. Having started out in one of those positions many years before, I was one who helped out. Wow what an eye opener. It amazed me how much Id forgotten about the trials and tribulations experienced by our entry-level workerseven after having worked in those positions for years.

Sadly, when I suggest to managers and leaders that they engage in such practices, they look at me as if Id just asked them to swallow a couple of goldfish. Most feel its beneath them or that their time is too valuable to be doing menial labor.

Ah, if they only got past their egos or could see the forest through the trees.

But hope exists. I know he didnt learn it from me, but it appears that Dave Neeleman, CEO of the discount airline JetBlue, practices in the trenches leadership. This according to an excellent column by Norm Brodsky in the March edition of INC. Magazine. Seems Brodsky was on a cross-country flight, and after the plane reached cruising altitude, Neeleman stood up, got on the loudspeaker system and announced who he was. He said that he wanted to meet each passenger and get their feedback. Whats more, Neeleman was wearing a flight attendants apron, not some fancy thousand-dollar suit.

YES! A leader who gets it.

Brodsky describes how Neeleman visited with every passenger on the plane, writing down passengers ideas and suggestions, responding to complaints, and telling people about some of the cool things JetBlue is planning in the future.

How often does Neeleman do this? Not as often as Id like, was his response. I can work it in at least once a month, sometimes more. My other responsibilities make it more difficult now, but I like to get out here when I can.

I read this article with total affirmation. But once a month? All I suggest to managers and leaders is once a year! No wonder JetBlue is doing better than all the other airlines. Theyve got someone at the top that is willing to invest time in the trenches in order to make better decisions in the boardroom.

Take a look at your schedule. Why not make some timeeven a few hoursto get your hands dirty where the rubber meets the road in your company? I bet youll learn more than you think you will, and the payoff will be greater than the investment.

PS. I also recommend picking up the March edition of INC. and reading Brodskys excellent column.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Daniel Bobinski teaches teams and individuals how to use emotional intelligence and how to create high impact training. Hes also a best-selling author, a popular speaker, and he loves helping teams and individuals achieve workplace excellence