Leading From the Front – Where a Business Leader Should Be in Tough Times

The business environment post-financial crisis is a war and business managers who adopt the approach of the ancient warrior leaders will be the most likely to prevail. It’s a real battle for survival out there. They don’t actually kill anyone anymore, but apart from that, everything else is the same.

Centuries ago, a leader’s place was up-front – leading the way into battle astride their horse or in the front chariot. We can all imagine Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan or William Wallace inspiring their warriors to victory against all odds. Then, leadership changed and the Generals started commanding from the back where they could be better analysts and strategists (and they were, of course, less likely to be killed!).

In business, we have adopted the ‘managing from the back’ model. Look at where the manager’s office is in most buildings – in the spot that’s furthest from the customers. We even call staff at the opposite end of the business hierarchy ‘front-line staff’. In these times of crisis, leaders need to adopt more of the old ‘leading from the front’ model. Both your customers and your staff need confidence from you – your customers to stay loyal and your staff to stay fully engaged. McDonald’s recognised this many years ago when they launched their very successful ‘Back to the Front Day’ (where senior managers spent a day at the counter serving customers). The only question: is once a year enough?

When was the last time you left your office and visited some clients? What stops most managers is they don’t believe they’re good at it – or, at least, they don’t believe they are better than their sales rep, so why do it? They are missing the point. Just the fact that you took the time to go and see them will build loyalty. Also, there are techniques that leaders can use to allow them to perform this more up-front role with confidence. And the leaders who do that will earn greater respect from their staff – particularly their sales staff.

Now is the time when you should have your client loyalty at it’s highest level – before they get the tempting offer from your competitor; not after, when the best you can hope for is an opportunity to make a counter-offer.

The battleground in the business war is the sales market, and salespeople are doing it tough: they are losing long-term clients, experiencing extra delays, encountering unmatchable pricing as competitors go down or try to buy market-share. And this is why leaders need to be better sales people – so they can offer the empathy, support and suggestions that struggling sales staff need from their leader. Even the best sales staff will need help to get a deal over the line in this environment. They need a leader who is sales-focused; otherwise they will get frustrated and look for a place where they are understood. And you want the best sales staff working for you…not your competition.

Difficult times demand change. Often, this will be for the good; but any change is disruptive to staff and threatening to those feeling insecure. This will create a negative attitude towards the change which will compromise its effectiveness. And in a crisis, you need your initiatives to work!

This is another area where a leader needs to be a salesperson – to sell the change. Your task is to sell them a future with you that is better than now…and you’ll never instil that confidence in them unless you can demonstrate it yourself. In wars in the past, the generals at the back most often used their weapons not to threaten the enemy, but to threaten their own (deserting) troops. Now – what does that tell you?

In these times, images of CEOs and CFOs being hauled off to prison are commonplace. Customers’ trust in the senior management of the businesses they deal with has been challenged for the first time and it must be re-established. Smart leaders need to be more visible, personally demonstrating and articulating the organisation’s values. A lot of business leaders have lost the ability because they have left it to subordinates or outsiders (for example public relations professionals) to perform; but in these times they need to reclaim that role.

Smart business leaders will see this as an opportunity to reposition themselves with their staff and clientele so that when the recovery really occurs they are best positioned to reap the rewards.