Notes from Firing up the front line
Jon R. Katzenbach and Jason A. Santamaria, in Harvard Business Review
For many organizations, achieving competitive advantage means eliciting superior performance from employees on the front line. McKinsey & Company and the Conference Board studied five distinct managerial paths that result in committed, high-performing frontline workers. The approach discussed in this article, the “Mission, Values, and Pride (MVP) Path” generates organizational energy through mutual trust, collective pride, and self-discipline. Frontline employees commit themselves to MVP organizations because they share its values, and are proud of its aspirations, accomplishments, and legacy .
Among those studied, these organizations were classified as following the MVP path: Marriott, 3M, The New York City Ballet, and the US Marines.
MVP organizations have five practices in common: they over-invest in cultivating core values, prepare every person to lead, know when to create teams and when to create single-leader work groups, attend to all employees, and encourage self-discipline as a way of building pride.
Practice One: Over-invest in inculcating core values
- Define your core values. What do you stand for? Why do you exist?
- Stress the importance of your values, e.g. integrity, honor, courage, and commitment.
- Define critical objectives, e.g. speed, responsiveness, flexibility.
- Build a sense of belonging to a noble cause.
- Build collective pride and mutual trust.
- Encourage mutual accountability.
- Assign training and mentoring to the most experienced and talented role models.
- Increase the length of training programs from a matter of hours to days or even weeks.
- Role play realistic scenarios that require recruits to apply the company's values when making tough decisions.
Practice Two: Prepare every person to lead
- An organization's belief that everyone can and must be a leader creates collective pride and builds mutual trust. Each person knows she can rely on her colleagues to take charge, just as she can be relied upon. Energy and commitment naturally follow, and have a powerful impact on morale.
- The first goal is not to teach recruits how to take charge, but to demonstrate the qualities that characterize effective leaders in action: morality, courage, initiative, and respect for others.
- MVP organizations follow this up with ten weeks or more of training in the practical and theoretical components of running an organization, from logistics to motivation.
Practice Three: Distinguish between teams and single-leader work groups
- Managers tend to label every working group in an organization a "team", but employees quickly lose motivation and commitment when they're assigned to a team that turns out to be a single-leader work group.
- Single-leader work groups are fast and efficient, and are needed when individual tasks are more important than collective work, and when the leader really does know best.
- Most work in business is done by single-leader work groups, which rely entirely on their leaders for purpose, goals, motivation, and assignments; each member is accountable solely to the leader.
- Real teams are rare. They draw their motivation more from missions and goals than from leaders. Members work together as peers and hold one another accountable for the group's performance and results.
Practice Four: Attend to the bottom half
- Most managers resist devoting time and talent to the bottom half. They believe it's easier and cheaper to replace underperformers than to rejuvenate them.
- In places where the economy is booming, labor is in short supply. Many companies that once seemed to have an unlimited number of applicants for low-level positions are now struggling to keep every job filled. For that reason alone, salvaging underperformers makes sense.
Practice Five: Use discipline to build pride
- MVP organizations emphasize self-discipline and group discipline. They ask every member of the front line to be her own toughest boss and to be a strict enforcer for her colleagues.
- It takes very little to harness the power of discipline, to get frontline employees to set and beat their own high standards for performance. It starts with an executive decision never to be content with enterprise-imposed, top-down discipline, and a commitment to encouraging self-discipline and group-discipline.
- MVP units celebrate the achievements of teams that practice self-discipline, but also visibly confront the failures of those that don’t.
- Such a dynamic could backfire in certain circumstances - for instance, if the underlying values of the institution are corrupt. But in their approach to discipline, MVP organizations demand that everyone act with honor, courage, and commitment. When people do so - on their own and as a group - enormous energy is unleashed.