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by Erik Sorenson, Vault CEO | August 17, 2009


I was reminded again recently about the importance of“patrolling the front lines.”  As managers and executives, it’s critical that we inspect the detailsbecause – forgive the cliché – that’s where the devil makes himselfcomfortable.  It’s important toyour career for two reasons:  itcan make you more skillful, which could get you promoted; and it’s gooddefense, protecting you from gremlins that could set you back.

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

I started my career doing one particular line of work fromthe bottom up.  Along the way, Idid virtually every task there was so I had a good instinct for the executionof details below me in the hierarchy. I was young and my many peers/employees always seemed to share importantoffice news.   And I worked inan industry silo that constantly measured customer behavior and surveyedcustomers for even more insight. But now that I’ve switched to a new silo, those advantages aren’tworking for me as well so I’m trying to develop new approaches, which I’vebroken down into three buckets:

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

Employees – it’s so important to engage employees two levelsaway.  Most managers and execscould spend all their weekly “face time” with colleagues one level up, at thesame level, or direct reports.  Nomatter how strong a direct report however, there is a limit to their knowledgeand ability to share unvarnished truths. Only by engaging colleagues two, three or even four levels down can youreally learn the details that will help you diagnose problems, gather relevantnew facts, and unearth novel solutions.   This is especially true in the area of teamwork, whichis oh so subtle and subjective and reliant on human behavior.

Customers- last but not least, it’s critical that those of uswho can reach out to customers and engage them in direct, honest dialogue abouttheir experiences with the company. Customers will tell you, too. They will say what they do and don’t like about your product – not tomention their treatment by your personnel.  The trick is getting that feedback, though it has never beeneasier.   If your product istraded in a public setting, like a store, you can easily put on a hat and aGroucho Marx mask to do a little first-hand spying.  But if geography doesn’t cooperate – or your product isn’tbrick and mortar – you can get all the feedback you need, and then some, thanksto the internet, search engines and your computer.  If you sell a product to the public, you can be sure theyare talking about it on-line.  Setup a feed from Google and you can “enjoy” blogs, forums and discussionsproviding 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 toughbecause it’s dirty, crowded and a little bit dangerous in the foxhole.  But whether you use the information yougather up there on the front to cover your ass, solve problems or revolutionizeyour part of the company, you’ll be ahead of the game.  Just remember to bring a helmet.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues