Check Availability

Customer Experience

Why Don’t More CEOs Engage With Front-Line Employees?

Two restaurant employees wearing green aprons

The new CEO of Starbucks prepared for the job by joining his front-line employees. In the process, he’s putting on a master class in customer experience for leaders everywhere.

Donning the famous Starbucks green apron, Laxman Narasimhan underwent 40 hours of training to become a certified barista – then worked the drive-thru at a new Chicago Starbucks. He greeted customers who drove up, processed loyalty cards, and scanned phones for payment – just like everyone else.

When he formally took over as CEO in March, Narasimhan announced that he and his executive team would continue working in Starbucks stores for a half-day each month.

“I have learned so much about the retail experience,” he wrote in an internal letter. “You’ve welcomed me into our stores, trained me in how to be a barista…all to help me deeply understand what we do, how we do it, and the challenges and opportunities facing us.”

If only others would follow his lead.

In an ideal customer experience world, CEOs would frequently mix with front-line employees to better understand the business. For one thing, it’s great for employee morale because it makes the workforce feel valued and heard – and happy employees translate to happy customers.

There are many notable examples of chief executives who worked their way up from the ground floor within their own company.

But once they ascend to the top, only a couple of CEOs – such as those at DoorDash and Best Buy – have spent some time working in the trenches.

The practice remains “astoundingly uncommon” in corporate America, so unusual that a television show, Undercover Boss, found 10 seasons of success by having high-level executives surreptitiously attempt rank-and-file jobs within their own organization. Hilarity ensued in almost every episode.

CEOs Need To Connect Better With Employees

Over the past few decades, some experts say, the stereotype of the aloof CEO sitting in a corporate boardroom has started to give way to a desire for “leaders to be more authentic and more approachable.”

A 2018 study by Harvard Business Review, though, found that CEOs still spend 72 percent of their total work time…in meetings.

Time spent with rank-and-file employees? Just six percent.

The study’s authors recommended something different.

CEOs “must stay approachable and find ways to meaningfully engage with employees at all levels,” they wrote. “This not only keeps them in touch with what is really going on in the company but helps them model and communicate organizational values throughout the workforce…direct human contact with the rank and file also grounds CEOs and helps them understand employees’ reality.”

As an example, Chuck Cohen and Rick Cohen, the co-CEOs of Benco Dental – a leading dental supplies and equipment distributor – routinely host “Coffee With The Cohens” at the company’s headquarters in Pittston, Pa. They meet in the employee cafeteria, give an update on the business, and then take live questions from employees.

One word that employees commonly use to describe the Cohens? Approachable.

Related: How To Respond To Customers And Employees During A Pandemic – An Interview With Chuck Cohen

The late Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh CEO Tony Hsieh famously sat at the same-sized desk as employees at the company’s call center, right in the middle of a cluster of other desks, instead of a fancy corner office.

As Fast Company noted about Starbucks’ Narasimhan: “The better bosses understand the job they’re asking their employees to do, the happier everyone is… whether that means making Frappuccinos or shooting hoops, hands-on experience is key for leaders. Here’s to a CEO who knows how to work a frother.”

Other CEOs Who Have Worked in the Trenches

The experience that Narasimhan gained from working in stores won him numerous media plaudits. It fits with the company’s longstanding emphasis on customer experience.

Some other CEOs have similarly defied the norm.

DoorDash, for example, requires all employees – including CEO Tony Xu and his executive team – to make deliveries at least once a month.

In 2012, when Hubert Joly took over as Best Buy CEO, he spent his first week working at a Best Buy store in Minnesota.

Joly later told the Harvard Business Review that putting on “my blue shirt and my khaki pants” proved extremely useful in “listening to what’s happening on the frontline, to know what’s going on” in the company.

That same year, new Boot Barn CEO James Conroy spent his first month selling boots in a store for the chain that sells western-themed footwear and other apparel.

“I wanted to understand what was working; learn the company, its products and customers and then lead the business,” he explained.

Both Joly and Conroy were credited with engineering turnarounds of their then-struggling companies. But that was more than a decade ago, and very few other examples are available publicly.

More CEO Should Mix with Rank-and-File Employees

The Best Buy and Boot Barn successes reinforce a series of crucial points about why the new Starbucks CEO is onto something. Mixing more with rank-and-file employees allows CEOs to better understand the strengths of the operation in order to do more of them – and also spot problems that need to be fixed.

Chief executives who get out of the boardroom are likely to learn employee pain points that prevent work from getting done, along with customer pain points that prevent a seamless experience.

It is one of the single best ways to learn what the customer experience and employee experience is like. They may not teach it in business school, but it’s a great lesson for all CEOs to learn.

Image by An SiYu from Pixabay.

See What Dan Can Do For Your Organization

Let Dan inspire your team to adopt a customer-centric culture where everyone can be The Experience Maker.

Meet With Dan