A Field Day for Executives
Think you're a great leader? Try doing the work of those you lead.
By Jeffrey Pfeffer

(Business 2.0) – Earlier this year my wife and I flew into Newark Airport on a Continental Airlines flight from Madrid. We had less than two hours to make a connecting flight to San Francisco, but 70 minutes later our bags had yet to appear. During the wait, we observed a phenomenon all too common in American corporations: customer-facing employees scrambling to make up for management misjudgments. Continental ground personnel were doing their best to calm irate passengers and book new flights for those who missed connections, all the while providing cheerful, professional service. Their heroism, undoubtedly displayed on a daily basis, was made necessary by some genius at the airline who decided that more than half of Continental's flights from Europe—13 planes, most of them full—should land between 12:30 and 2:30 p.m.

Airline workers seem to be continually apologizing for decisions made above their heads—awful food, no legroom, poor scheduling—but they're hardly the only ones. Telephone operators at mail-order companies have to make excuses for buggy software and order-fulfillment gaffes, while nurses find themselves answering for health-insurance policies drafted by people who never see patients. In fact, it's almost axiomatic in today's corporations that so-called strategic managers are so far removed from daily operations that they can't hope to understand how their decisions impact customers.

Some companies—not enough of them—do something quite simple to mitigate this problem: They schedule regular "days in the field" during which deskbound managers do the organization's front-line work. At Southwest Airlines, for instance, senior officers handle bags, serve as flight attendants, and check in passengers one day every quarter. The Men's Wearhouse encourages top managers to wait on customers when salespeople are busy. Once, when I checked into the Regent Hotel in Sydney, Australia, the registration clerk apologized for not being totally proficient: She was a back-office accountant, but the Regent encouraged all employees to serve customers occasionally. Note that I'm talking about higher-ups doing real labor for an extended period of time, not simply touring plants and chatting with workers.

Time in the field offers more than managerial empathy: It also leads to better decisions. Take Kathryn Clubb, formerly a senior partner at Accenture, who early in her career worked as a financial analyst at Northwest Airlines. During a strike by ground personnel, Clubb spent time loading and unloading baggage, which she says helped her design more efficient baggage-handling procedures. Bob Waterman, a former board member at Virginia-based AES, credits that power producer's "week-in-the-field" program—during which senior executives work at one of the company's power plants—with teaching managers the specifics of their business so they could weather their industry's post-Enron storm better than competitors. Japanese automaker Honda has an expression to promote similar behavior: "Actual part, actual place, actual situation." Instead of sitting in a conference room with a neat abstraction of a problem, go to where the problem is occurring and deal with it in all its messy glory. That's where solutions are born.

Of course, one of the privileges of rising in an organization is graduating from the hassles of grunt work. And it would be impossible for managers to manage while spending all their time serving customers. But more companies should follow Honda's lead in directing executive attention to where problems actually occur. I'll bet that after spending one week in baggage claim at a Continental international arrivals terminal, the airline's scheduling gurus—exhausted and fed up with angry travelers—might find a way to expand their flight-arrival window beyond 120 minutes.