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November 18, 2009

Lowly Old Me


[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

In a down economy, the wisdom of the mid- and entry-level employee is akin to that of a dog. Cute in the poor lowly thing’s attempt to communicate but not to be taken seriously. The serious decision-making must be left to the wise few who brought the company to its current financial state. The economy in tatters, and most companies still waiting to profit from the rumor of a recovery, that’s funny thinking. How brilliant could the world’s business leaders be if their decisions are what got us to the place our economy currently is?

Granted, there’s no telling whether any of us would have made better decisions in their place given the same circumstances, but shouldn’t the experience have humbled company executives enough to keep their ear open to suggestions from all ranks of the company?  The funniest thing is when a department, or the company as whole, wins an award, or is recognized in some way, and hordes of employee are squished into the celebratory photo—in deference to the “teamwork” catch phrase, but with little reality behind the “team” part of it.  The “work” part was no doubt carried out by the company’s underlings, but most had no say as to their assignments or the end-goal of their labors. If they spoke up, it was only to tell their manager what a great idea the extra work was.

Is there a way to make it better? First, I wonder why company leadership often is so hesitant to act on recommendations from any but fellow executives?  Is it a matter of arrogance, or is it the necessity to whittle down decision-making to just one a small group of people to avoid chaos?  Wisdom from the un-anointed is frightening, but what about collective wisdom from those outside the inner ring?  Sure, your executives can’t listen to every entry-level kook who comes knocking, but what about a whole band of entry-level kooks, who all noticed the same customer service problem on your front-lines? The collective wisdom of those still outside your executive igloo (an isolated-seeming place that reminds me of the mind-set of most corporate executives) is not only worth listening to—it’s a matter of listen-or-suffer-the-consequences.

Let’s say you sold Self-Actualizing Ice Cream. Machines that made ice cream that showed you your reflection as you consumed it, and then, at the bottom of every cup of Self-Actualized Ice Cream was a message about finding your inner-self. The business was such a success (who wouldn’t want to find themselves while gorging on ice cream?), you had a large store, in addition to a mail order business, in which those in search of leading a more satisfying life ambled around looking for ice cream they could see their reflection in. The problem was certain ice creams not only weren’t showing the consumer her reflection; they were showing her an unflattering distortion of her image due to a problem with the store’s lighting. Front-line workers had already spoken to their managers about the problem, and sent multiple e-mails to those at the company responsible for product development and marketing, but no response was heard, and the embarrassing problem persisted. Those at the store in search of self-actualization were leaving upset.

You could argue the front-line workers who reported the problem don’t understand that, due to budgetary constraints, and an already-rolled out marketing campaign, there is little the company can do about the gaffe, but the information they supply you will aid future product development. You could still profit from the information they give you without acknowledging their contribution (don’t want them to get too big for their britches, after all), but then you squander a great leadership development opportunity. When those on the front-line and in the company’s middle ranks take the initiative to contact company executives about a front-line problem, a ready-made pool of high-potential applicants is being delivered at your feet.  Never mind “hand-picked” recommendations from management, those bold and proactive enough to speak up about your company’s lackluster performance are the best candidates for future leadership slots.

To ensure your company creates a culture that encourages those outside executive ranks to offer commentary and problem-solving about the direction your company is taking and the products you’re delivering to customers, create an elite group of high-potentials that can only be gained access to via front-line problem-solving and improvement. This elite group would have opportunities beyond what your run-of-the-mill hi-pos are given. That means opportunities to sit in on executive strategy sessions and maybe even participate in leadership retreats usually reserved for the company’s executive board.

It isn’t enough to tell your lowest-level employees their suggestions are welcome; you have to demonstrate the importance of their input via promotions and formal recognition. At too many companies it’s just the reverse—the ones who are rewarded with promotions, recognition, and advancement are those who “don’t rock the boat”— those at the low-level who go along silently with executive strategy, even when they know it’s not going to work.  Unless there’s an issue of immorality at play, everyone interested in preserving their job has to go along with executive strategy, but it’s worth noting which, if any, of your employees are engaged enough to make alternate suggestions for consideration, and do so in a way that doesn’t anger managers. Those bold, diplomatic few are the ones worth keeping.

“Yes” men and women on your front-lines stroke the egos of executives. But to your customers, they—and the “brilliant” strategy your company leadership has asked them to follow—are all the more reason for your best customers to say “no” next time.


What does your company do to ensure the suggestions of entry- and mid-level employees are heard and, when worthwhile, acted on?


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