Fred Hassan’s article, The Frontline Advantage, in the May 2011 Harvard Business Review (subscription required), turns the spotlight on the too-easily ignored and truly critical frontline leaders who make our organizations go and grow.  Frontline leaders are of course the managers and supervisors directly responsible for those doing the work.

“Typically, they make up 50% to 60% of a company’s management ranks and directly supervise as much as 80% of the workforce.”

Underscoring the importance of this group of leaders, Hassan offers:

“It is the frontline managers who must motivate and bolster the morale of the people who do the work-those who design, make and sell the products or services to the customers.  These managers are central to a company’s business strategy because they oversee its execution.”

While there’s much I don’t like about this article, including my interpretation of Hassan’s royal CEO and sometime turn-around miracle worker taking a pampered and well-facilitated walk amongst the common folk tone, his core theme: frontline leaders are really important is spot on. (In Hassan’s defense, he clearly highlights that his advice is for other CEOs.)

Great Front-line Leaders Create “Hustle and Flow”

Regular readers know I’ve got a problem with stores and businesses where customers seem to serve as inconveniences to sourpuss cashiers, unhelpful shelf-stockers and clusters of employees gabbing about something other than improving customer service. While those workers are just plain wrong, the responsibility for their performance falls squarely on the frontline leaders.

Alternatively, the businesses where you are welcomed, greeted with a smile by every employee you encounter and where your problems are politely and promptly solved, and where the energy level seems to say, “let’s help, and let’s be prompt about it,” owe their success to great people selection and day-to-day leadership of good frontline leaders.

Great frontline leaders create great experiences for their employees. This flows immediately and directly to customers.  And then it flows to the top and bottom lines.

Wrinkly-Shirted Bridge Lizards Need Not Apply:

During an interview for Practical Lessons in Leadership, one of the managers at a company we visited, indicated that the frontline leaders who did the most damage were the  Wrinkly-Shirted managers, who preferred to spy on everyone from behind the one-way glass on the “bridge” above the retail floor, rather than interact with employees and customers.

The visual image of a green, scale-covered manager wearing a wrinkled corporate-issue button down shirt, standing on high with a tongue occasionally flickering out, and glowering at everyone through beady, black eyes, is a powerful and fitting image of the worst-kind of frontline leader.

Five Reasons why Great Front-Line Leaders are Priceless:

1. Frontline leaders are close to the customer. They know how the customers respond to every brilliant and not-so-brilliant idea that rolls out of corporate.  They know the tastes and habits and brand preferences and problems of their customers, and they know what’s going on with competition in detail, long before corporate types have analyzed the latest competitive press release. These individuals are treasure-troves of real-time, detailed customer and market information.

2. Hassan is right…frontline leaders are the ones who execute on strategy. Everyone else plans, talks, reports, critiques and thinks about strategy execution…front-line leaders live it.  Want to do a better job executing on plans where it counts…educate and support the frontline leaders and let them know how important they are in this process.

3. Frontline leaders directly determine how right or wrong the working environment (atmosphere) is for the employees serving the customers. A healthy, respectful working environment where employees are given quality feedback, supported for development and encouraged to cultivate new schools through training and job rotation, goes a long way to creating that “Hustle and Flow” referenced earlier.

4. Today’s quality frontline leaders are tomorrow’s effective general managers and executives. Learning the business from the front is infinitely more valuable than attempting to absorb it from on high. Give me someone who has worked in the trenches with the troops over the classroom educated chair sitter any day.

5. Great frontline leaders drive results. One of my favorite examples: the most valuable sales person in every organization may very well be the field sales manager who supports, coaches, motivates, and helps his/her salespeople move towards success.  The same holds true for great frontline leaders everywhere.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I’m always glad to see positive coverage of this critical group of organizational leaders. Hassan’s article serves to remind us how important it is to pay attention to and support our frontline leaders.  Based on my informal “smile test,” there are a fair number of frontline leaders who need to be doing something else.  Soon.  And for those who get it…here’s hoping you run your organization some day. Just don’t forget where you came from.