Want to be successful? Support your frontline managers.

Helping frontline managers get their jobs done is one of the most important activities for a leader, writes John M. Kamensky, a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government and a fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration.

Bob Stone, head of Vice President Al Gore’s reinventing government initiative in the 1990s, focused his attention on what was going on at the front line. He said helping those workers get their jobs done was a leader’s most important activity.

I was reminded of Bob’s insights when I read a recent Harvard Business Review article titled “The Frontline Advantage," by Fred Hassan, a pharmaceutical CEO who led the turnaround of several large, troubled companies. Hassan said the key to his success was engaging frontline leaders, such as shop-floor supervisors and call-center managers.

“The managers most responsible for a company’s success or failure happen to be the ones with whom the CEO spends the least amount of time,” he said.

He goes on to say, “It is the frontline managers who must motivate and bolster the morale of the people who do the work.... These managers are central to a company’s business strategy because they oversee its execution.”

I have seen that principle in action at several government agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Federal Student Aid Office and the Veterans Benefits Administration. Connecting with the frontline was where an agency’s success was made or broken. Fortunately, the government runs a periodic pulse check via the governmentwide Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The survey can give agency leaders a sense of how well aligned their frontline managers are with agency priorities and employees’ level of trust in senior leaders.

Hassan made me think of Stone when he wrote that “the CEO who leads through the front has a crucial role to play as champion and chief motivator.” His or her role is to “unleash personal engagement and emotional energy [by infusing] people’s tasks and goals with a sense of higher purpose.” Stone exuded higher purpose during his leadership of reinvention efforts. In fact, the title on his business card was energizer-in-chief.

Furthermore, Hassan made a commitment to meet with frontline managers “both formally and informally, on every site visit I made, to communicate my vision and solicit their perspectives and concerns.”

His CEO Dialogues were structured to ensure a genuine exchange with frontline managers. They included eight to 10 participants whom their peers recognized as high performers and a facilitator from the CEO’s immediate staff. After the meetings, a detailed summary and agreed-on action items were sent to the executive staff, with comments kept anonymous. The highlights were later shared with all employees via the organization’s intranet.

Hassan said he got to know a number of frontline supervisors at his company’s manufacturing plants. “I went out of my way to develop personal relationships with them,” he said, adding that he accepted their calls regardless of what he was doing at the time.

He also described how sales managers in one country he visited complained that the bureaucracy involved in getting access to company cars was preventing them from closing deals. Although it seemed trivial, Hassan addressed the issue, and sales increased as a result.

Similarly, retired Gen. Colin Powell once said his job was to deal with the trivial barriers so his staff could get the work done. Many of my most effective bosses saw that as an important part of their jobs. I certainly found it was an important part of mine.