Leaders must connect with front-line teams
In the compulsion of dousing daily fires, leaders often forget the soldiers
It’s nearly midnight and I am at a hotel in Mumbai with my friend, restaurateur Anjan Chatterjee. Anjan is a frequent flyer and has never shied away from telling me what he liked or didn’t like about flying with IndiGo. As he piles on yet another shrimp bruschetta on my plate, he laments that the last few times that he flew with us, the washrooms were not as sparkling as they “used to be”. This was nearly a year ago.
I sent a short message on one of the many groups I was part of with colleagues across the network. The message was simple: A regular customer is unhappy with a particular aspect of our service delivery. I ended the message by saying that without consulting them, I had made a personal commitment to the customer that the next time he flew IndiGo, he would not face the same issue.
I left for overseas, and, within a week, I get a call from Anjan. With a healthy dose of disbelief, Anjan tells me that no matter which IndiGo flight he takes now, he can see sparkling loos.
In my 10 years of leading a large organization, with thousands of employees spread over scores of locations, being deeply connected with my colleagues served me well time and again. Traditionally, the same action would have taken the shape of a chain of officious circulars, reiteration of procedures, dog-eared notices on glass-enclosed noticeboards and emails that would remain unread. In this case, the message simply set a goal, not a prescription of what needed to be done. It was evidence of my trust in the line employees, rather than a witch-hunt for who was at fault, and, finally, a true testament of how much pride the front-line team takes in its work product. We were not only able to build a culture of camaraderie, but also drive change and execute with passion. More selfishly, for me, I got to learn something new every day.
Typically, in most businesses, when the most important and valued customer walks in through the door, he/she is served by someone very senior in the organization. It could even be the CEO. After all, that experience is most likely to determine whether you will see that customer ever again. However, in the case of any service-oriented business, such as hotels, airlines, and retail outlets, when the most important customer walks in through the door, the most senior representative that he/she will meet is a front-office manager, or a flight attendant or a salesperson. Few people know who the CEO is, and, certainly, no one really cares!
In such a business, with literally tens of millions of “moments of truth” every year, how do you ensure consistency of service where the front-line staff, the man in the trenches, believes that it is he who is going to win the battle for us?
I firmly believe that this can only happen when the passion and motivation come from within. Companies that have figured out a way to have large groups of highly motivated and committed employees consistently hit the ball out of the park.
There isn’t one magic bullet. It takes years of hard work and effort on the part of the leader to build a culture that truly represents what the organization set out to do in the first place.
The early realization I had in my operating role was that the belief we have in the dream, the goal, the mission, dissipates rapidly as it meanders through layers of organization structures. The more the layers, the more diverse the functions, the more geographically spread you are, the faster the belief disappears.
The more recent realization that I have had is that this is a cultural challenge that also plagues most start-ups, with small teams where you would expect people are talking to each other. Unfortunately, this is far from the reality. In the compulsion of dousing daily fires, leaders often tend to forget the soldiers.
The problem is that of communication. Leaders are spending far too much time in crafting lofty (and wordy) vision and mission statements. Is it any wonder that front-line teams are not able to execute consistently? Do leaders make the time to regularly communicate the reason behind why we expect our colleagues to do something? Are there better ways to connect?
Something for leaders to think about.
Aditya Ghosh is the former president and whole-time director of IndiGo and is passionate about creating what he calls an ‘army of leaders’. He tweets at @iamadityaghosh
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