Too many bosses insulate themselves from the real work their employees do, believing that it’s somehow not relevant to their job. They would be wildly wrong.
The price of neglect
There’s nothing pretty about arms-length leadership. It frustrates employees and leads to problems. Employees pay up front and the bosses later, if at all.
I saw this firsthand when I spent a day in the field with Ed, an electric utility company serviceman in my department. At the time I was the new director of customer service where overdue accounts receivable were through the roof. I was supposed to fix that. “Really?” I thought.
For starters, the company needed to terminate electric service for accounts seriously in arrears, particularly businesses, in accordance with regulatory and fairness standards.
Part of Ed’s job was to collect or cut service, and I needed to see how the process worked. That day we had a cut order for an Italian restaurant that had defaulted on its payment arrangements several times.
We arrived to discover the owner was not there, even though he knew we were coming. It was about an hour before the lunch crowd was expected, so employees were scurrying to get things set up.
We told the restaurant supervisor what we were there to do. Once the employees heard, they started pulling out all the stops to get prepared.
To locate the meter, Ed and I had to walk through the kitchen past pots of marinara sauce and down a rickety staircase into a dark cellar divided into eight storage cages. That made me pretty nervous!
When Ed had found the meter, he yelled upstairs, “Are…you…ready?”
“Wait,” someone yelled, “we have to get the fish back into the freezer.”
A couple minutes passed before we got their okay, and everything went black.
We followed our flashlight back upstairs to find employees still doing what they could to protect the food and figure out how to handle things over lunch.
The supervisor knew we needed a check from the owner to restore service. He was making frantic phone calls trying to reach him. We explained that we’d be back early afternoon and hopefully he’d have a check for us.
When we returned, the owner still hadn’t been reached. The supervisor handed us a signed check for $500.00 made out to Sal’s Seafood. He’d crossed out the fish store’s name and wrote in the electric company’s. I really felt for him, but that wouldn’t fly.
It’s about being there.
When that restaurant owner heard this story, he likely shrugged it off, making the utility company the bad guy. He wouldn’t be able to relate to how stricken his employees felt when the lights went out. He won’t have heard the complaints from his customers or seen them leave.
He might, in fact, have blamed his supervisor for being unable to talk us out of cutting the power. He probably wouldn’t praise his staff for saving his food inventory or finding a way to appease his customers.
When leaders aren’t in the thick of things, seeing them firsthand and internalizing their impacts, they never really get it. For proof of that, one episode of CBS’s Undercover Boss should be enough.
Frontline employees are the business.
The people who do the work are the business. Executives and managers direct. First-line supervisors and frontline employees deliver. When things go wrong, they’re the ones that execute the fix.
Arms-length leaders and owners are a liability to their companies. They drive employees out, discourage engagement, and compromise the health of the business.
Every owner and manager needs to get out from behind his/her desk and spend time with employees, seeing what they’re seeing, understanding what they’re doing, and finding ways to remove obstacles.
How about scheduling a day a month with one or two of your employees starting now? Or invite your boss to see what you do? You’ll never regret it!
Has there been an arms-length boss in your work life? I’m all ears!