I'm not asking you to swallow goldfish

2004

For more than fifteen years now I’ve been preaching that top managers, leaders, and CEO’s 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 McDonald’s 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? Don’t 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 what’s 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 what’s 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. Here’s 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 didn’t 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 I’d forgotten about the trials and tribulations experienced by our entry-level workers—even 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 I’d just asked them to swallow a couple of goldfish. Most feel it’s 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 didn’t 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. What’s more, Neeleman was wearing a flight attendant’s 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 I’d 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. They’ve 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 time—even a few hours—to “get your hands dirty” where the rubber meets the road in your company? I bet you’ll 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 Brodsky’s excellent column.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.