Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Do You Do Breakpack?

Back when I worked at the headquarters of a grocery wholesaler, I frequently made trips out to the divisions for meetings. After the meetings were over, I would always ask if someone could give me a tour of the warehouse. The division presidents loved this. They were like proud Papa’s who wanted to show off pictures of their children. They loved their warehouse and enjoyed showing it off.

Now I didn’t ask because I loved to see warehouses. Once you’ve seen a few, you realize they are rather dull. I did it to make the people out in the field feel better. In order to make it look like I was truly interested in what was going on, I had a predetermined set of questions to ask them which I had memorized in advance. It included things like “Do you do breakpack?” and “When was the last time you re-racked the warehouse?” I really wasn’t all that interested in the answers to the questions, but I acted as if I was.

Throughout the tour, I would always praise everyone for the great work they were doing. A little praise went a long way.

As one of the division presidents put it to me, “You’re not like those other guys from headquarters. As soon as the meeting is over, they rush out of here, telling me that they have to hurry to catch a plane. Hell, this is a small town. I know when all of the flights are scheduled to leave, and there is never a flight at that time for them to rush to. They just don’t want to spend time with me.”

For a strategy to succeed it must, at some point, affect the way your front-line employees interact with the customer. It doesn’t matter how clever your strategy is. If it is delivered to the customer by surly, inconsiderate employees, it will have difficulty succeeding.

People still matter. Your strategy must never forget that it is only as good as the way it is delivered out in the field. The front-line employees have the power to make or break the strategy. Therefore, it is important to make sure your front-line employees are properly motivated to make the strategy work.

That is why I always tried to pump up the troops when I went out into the field. I wanted them to feel special…to feel proud. A front-line employee who is proud of what they are doing will do a better job (for more on this, see my blog “Soulless Capitalism”). Customers will recognize this enthusiasm and reward the company with additional business.

If you are a division president and you know that corporate doesn’t want to spend any time with you, and that they’d rather hang out at an airport restaurant than talk to you, then you are less likely to feel loyal to the headquarters. The rest of the people in the division will pick up on that attitude, and before you know it, the front-line troops are not supporting the strategy.

The principle here is to make sure that your strategic process incorporates the impact of the frontline troops. These people need to embrace the strategy and feel proud about being a part of it. By doing so, you will better deliver the benefits of the strategy at the point where it matters most—where the company intersects with its customers.

This point was brought to light recently in a survey conducted by Maritz Research. This survey found a linkage between how a manager treats the frontline troops and how the troops interact with the customer. According to the research, “Honest, caring, cheerful, generous and flexible workforce supervisors do the best job of motivating employees to deliver great service and create customer loyalty...Employees who serve under this kind of positive supervisor tend to feel the strongest affinity for customers and also believe that the company does an outstanding job of serving its customers.”

By contrast, the tough, controlling, Machiavellian “win-at-any-cost” supervisors de-motivate the troops. “Not only are these managers poor at motivating their employees, but those who work for this type of supervisor have some of the poorest attitudes towards their company’s customers.”

Which would you rather have: frontline employees with a strong affinity for customers or frontline employees with poor attitudes towards customers? You can help control which of these types of frontline employees you have based on they way you manage them. This could have a greater impact on success than the cleverness of the strategy.

Therefore, the way frontline troops are managed should be addressed as part of your approach to bringing the strategy to life. And, since attitudes tend to trickle down from the top, your key executives need to be practicing the right attitudes as well.

This is well illustrated in a book which was recently published, called “The Education of an Accidental CEO.” This is the story of David Novak, the successful CEO of Yum Brands, owners of the Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silvers and A&W brands.

In the book, Novak credits most of his success to his ability to fire up the troops and get them properly motivated. Novak tries to be positive and enthusiastic, making sure that he treats the troops in a respectful and praiseworthy manner.

To quote Novak, “You can never underestimate the power of telling someone he is dong a good job. The higher up the ladder you are, he more important it is to give credit rather than receive it…Always be on the lookout for reasons to celebrate the achievements of others.”

Novak intuitively understood what Maritz quantified in the survey. If you treat your employees with respect, then they will treat the customers with respect. These customers will then become more loyal and success will follow.

Hence, management style is important and needs to be incorporated as a part of the strategy.

Strategies need to be more than just ideas or concepts. For them to succeed, they have to impact the interaction between your frontline troops and the customer. Customers typically respond better if they are treated well and believe that the frontline troops care about them. Similarly, frontline troops are more likely to care about the customer if their superiors show that they care about the troops. Therefore, care and consideration should be an integral part of the strategic plan. Don’t always just rush off to the airport at your first opportunity. Take some time to shower the troops with praise.

During the most recent Super Bowl (Super Bowl XLII), much commentary was made about the coaching styles of the head coaches of the two teams. Both Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears used a positive coaching style similar to what is advocated in this blog. This is in stark contrast to the typical head coach, who tends to yell a lot and focus on what players are doing wrong. Many believe that this positive approach had a lot to do with the success of these two teams. I think it can also have a positive impact on the success of your team.

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