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Out of Our Minds
Wednesday, October 12, 2005 1:58 AM
Take More Field Trips
David Batstone on Business

William Pollard has a law degree, practiced legal counsel at a major US college, and led a distinguished career as a corporate executive. So you cannot blame his wife's cousin for feeling really confused when she ran into Pollard as he was mopping the floor at a Chicago hospital. Trying to make the best of an awkward situation, the woman diplomatically asked, 'Are things alright at home, Bill?'

She had caught Pollard, CEO and chairman of the $6 billion revenue plus Service Master Company, on a field day. Several times a year Pollard immersed himself - and strongly encouraged other senior managers at Service Master to do likewise - in the front lines of customer service in order to better understand the changing needs of his customers, and the challenges his workers faced in meeting those needs. Pollard claims that his field days gave him a fresh perspective on how well his company was executing. Pollard as chief officer of Service Master for over a decade made it his goal to keep 'the spirit of a small company and its responsiveness to customer needs [inside] a big organization.' (I write at more length about Pollard in my most recent book, Saving the Corporate Soul).

So how do you keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive in a company that grows beyond its mom-and-pop-store roots?

That's precisely the theme I addressed earlier this week in my keynote address at Sweden's Entrepreneurship Day - hosted by The Gothenberg School of Business and Sweden's private sector. Allow me to share a distilled selection of some of my remarks.\n\nDespite the obvious advantages of growing its business, a company inevitably faces a major roadblock. The original founders are in most cases the most passionate evangelists for their companies products and services. With growth, the founders are faced with administrative and financial tasks that dominate their schedule. They hire other people to manage sales, client relationships, and service. The bigger the company grows, the more layers emerge that separate clients from those individuals most passionate about the company's reason-for-being. Management guru Peter Drucker identifies these layers as 'noise,' and suggests that it can drown out the company's core message. \n\nLosing touch is a risk not only for founders, but can plague anyone with a desk far away from the front line of customer care. Field trips therefore are a useful technique to create teachable moments for management. \n\nI am still hoping that CEO David Neeleman will serve me a drink on my next flight on Jet Blue. Whenever he flies for a business meeting, Neeleman rolls up his sleeves and works along with the other flight attendants. He raises the same expectation for other senior managers whenever they fly their own airline. By doing so, Neeleman lifts the morale of his own flight attendants and sends a message: No one who works at JetBlue is too high and mighty to help out customers.\n\nSouthwest Airlines takes much the same tact. Senior officers handle bags, serve as flight attendants, and check in passengers one day every quarter. The goal is not only managerial empathy - though nurturing a bit more humility in leadership is certainly insignificant. But Southwest also hopes that while delivering service firsthand, managers can design more efficient systems that can be applied to good effect across the company.\n\nIn that regard, Japanese automaker Honda had made an art of hands on management. Leaders are taught a simple mantra: 'Actual part, actual place, actual situation.' Rather than hold a meeting on the 33rd floor conference room when a crisis pops up, managers are schooled to take a field trip to the site of the problem. As we all know, solutions designed on blackboards tend to oversimplify complex problems. \n\nOrganizations tend to manufacture their own reality, and along the way create mechanisms that support that worldview. In other words, we all live inside our own bubbles. Getting away from the desk, and taking part in our customers' world, helps to keep things real.

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