Frontline leadership: Are you on the level?

by HCA13 May 2009

Lego's CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, who has overseen the Danish toymaker's turnaround, discusses leadership approaches in the January issues of Harvard Business Review. He quotes a Danish saying that roughly translates as "managing at eye level" that means being able to speak to people on the factory floor, to engineers, to marketer - being at home with everybody. This idea implies that leaders of organisations actually want to be able to deal with everybody and are actually spending time where money is made in a company - at the frontline, where employees meet customers.

With frontline leadership in mind, I recently visited some stores in Sydney. With the cold winds of recession starting to be felt on cheeks around the world, I was sure that the retailers would be working hard to earn my money and I was ready to spend. What I discovered was a failure of leadership. 

In a men's outfitters, I tried on a $1200 suit, said it was a little pricey and walked out with a suit worth $499. I was in the market for an extra shirt, possibly two. I would even have looked at shoes. I was the only customer in the store, and yet there was no attempt to take the time to increase the value of the transaction. I am guessing that the people in store had not been given total clarity about the financial situation and their role in growing revenue. Upselling to me could have paid the salary of the shop assistant a whole day.

I still needed a shirt so ... on to a clothing store. I selected the garment I wanted and waited in front of the register. There were three people behind the counter. One was serving another customer. One was a manager who was ... well managing, I guess. Another was arranging ties in a display box. She took the trouble to tell me that she couldn't serve me so her attitude and behaviour seemed good but she was not being supported by the resources in store, namely a second functioning cash register.

The assistant in the shoe store was friendly, said 'hi' and then brought me all the sizes of shoe that I asked for. They did not have the right size but he made no attempt to sell me any other models or colours. When I left the store he had his back turned chatting to another member of staff.

What I experienced is not necessarily a failure of the front line staff but it is certainly a failure of leadership. It is easy to blame the people in store - the 'bad apples' - but what sort of a 'barrel' are their leaders providing them? A quick way to check that you are creating the conditions for success for the people where it matters is a 3Cs checklist. Try asking these questions of your frontline staff:

  • Clarity: do you know what is expected of you? Do you know the 'decision rights' you have to close a sale?
  • Climate: do you have the resources you need (cash registers, inventory etc) to serve customers and secure the sale?
  • Competence: are you getting the development you need to be able to sell?

To succeed in this crisis, leaders will need to be effective 'at eye level'.  This will mean spending time coaching, supporting and above all, learning, at the frontline. 

About the author
Dan Hammond is managing consultant at LIW. For more information visit


  • by Yousuf 16/05/2009 8:58:36 PM

    I understand ur point but the frontline staff works on minimum wages with very little chances of promotion. And a lot of this leadership talk is just talk. U will find favourism in all departments of retail business and trust me that is a killer of motivation.

    Nevertheless I have to agree that the service standards have been falling. Maybe we are used to very high quality of service which comes at a price that the companies cannot afford anymore.

  • by Dan Hammond 24/06/2009 11:55:23 AM

    Hi Yousuf, thanks for the comment. You are right, these guys are not well paid and my article was not supposed to blame them. However, leadership is more than talk - it can be a selfless, humble profession that brings meaning to the work of everyone in the organisation and inspires excellence. The service I expected would not have cost the companies any more as long as the leaders were doing their job. Happy to talk some more! Really appreciate the comment. Dan