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Patrol the Front Lines

Businessman
Businessman

I was reminded again recently about the importance of “patrolling the front lines.” As managers and executives, it’s critical that we inspect the details because – forgive the cliché – that’s where the devil makes himself comfortable. It’s important to your career for two reasons: It can make you more skillful, which could get you promoted; and it’s good defense, protecting you from gremlins that could set you back.

It’s easy to get insulated, especially if you manage a lot of people or run a complex division. You’re very busy meeting with colleagues and bosses with the occasional client presentation. In your office, the phone is constantly ringing and your computer mailbox is overflowing. And your lieutenants don’t necessarily want you lifting the corner of the carpet to see what’s been swept under, so they are forever telling you that everything “is just fine.”

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I started my career doing one particular line of work from the bottom up. Along the way, I did virtually every task there was so I had a good instinct for the execution of details below me in the hierarchy. I was young and my many peers/employees always seemed to share important office news. And I worked in an industry silo that constantly measured customer behavior and surveyed customers for even more insight. But now that I’ve switched to a new silo, those advantages aren’t working for me as well so I’m trying to develop new approaches, which I’ve broken down into three buckets:

Tasks - every now and then I volunteer for some grunt work. For one month I answered customer complaints by phone and email. I signed up for grass roots task force to tackle one of our company’s thorniest problems. Most recently, I volunteered to screen and enter data into our back-end computer system. In all these cases, the tasks put me in touch with junior personnel, forced me to encounter our systems first-hand, inevitably taught me things about other parts of the company that overlapped with the task center, and left me with invaluable new knowledge about the company.

Employees – it’s so important to engage employees two levels away. Most managers and execs could spend all their weekly “face time” with colleagues one level up, at the same level, or direct reports. No matter how strong a direct report however, there is a limit to their knowledge and ability to share unvarnished truths. Only by engaging colleagues two, three or even four levels down can you really learn the details that will help you diagnose problems, gather relevant new facts, and unearth novel solutions. This is especially true in the area of teamwork, which is oh so subtle and subjective and reliant on human behavior.

Customers - last but not least, it’s critical that those of us who can reach out to customers and engage them in direct, honest dialogue about their experiences with the company. Customers will tell you, too.

They will say what they do and don’t like about your product – not to mention their treatment by your personnel. The trick is getting that feedback, though it has never been easier. If your product is traded in a public setting, like a store, you can easily put on a hat and a Groucho Marx mask to do a little first-hand spying. But if geography doesn’t cooperate – or your product isn’t brick and mortar – you can get all the feedback you need, and then some, thanks to the internet, search engines and your computer. If you sell a product to the public, you can be sure they are talking about it on-line. Set up a feed from Google and you can “enjoy” blogs, forums and discussions providing levels of feedback you just can’t get any other way.

Here’s a final thought: They don’t call them the “front lines” for nothing. You have to be disciplined and tough because it’s dirty, crowded and a little bit dangerous in the foxhole. But whether you use the information you gather up there on the front to cover your ass, solve problems or revolutionize your part of the company, you’ll be ahead of the game. Just remember to bring a helmet.

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Erik Sorenson is CEO of Vault, the Web’s most comprehensive resource for career management and job search intelligence. Vault provides top talent with the insider information they need to make critical career decisions. An Emmy award-winning media industry veteran, Erik served as president of the MSNBC cable news channel through 2004. His experience spans radio, local and network broadcast television, cable and syndicated TV, and the Web.

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