Traps for senior leaders listening to the frontline

June 27, 2024 by Stephanie Denino


Since the pandemic and in the midst of unionization and labor disputes across industries, more and more senior leaders have appreciated the danger of being disconnected from their frontline workers.

Even as the waves of automation and digitization intensify, and organizations drive aggressive efficiency and headcount reduction efforts, the best leaders know that being connected to their frontline workers matters.

This refrain of “spending more time with the frontline” isn’t new – it’s call to action that has been around for a while. In recent years, it’s been re-popularized by CEOs like:

  • Hubert Joly (previously Best Buy CEO) who famously spent his first week at Best Buy donning a blue shirt blue shirt with a badge saying “CEO in Training” working in stores and listening to his frontline workers.
  • Bill George (previously Medtronic CEO) who spoke about spending “30% time with the frontline” in his 2022 HBR article “CEOs Have Lost Touch with Frontline Workers.”
  • Howard Schultz (previously Starbucks CEO) also recently wrote about the importance of “spending time with those in the green apron.”

There’s no denying that spending time with the frontline can be incredibly beneficial for leaders. For many, sitting with their people feels like the most powerful way to show they care about understanding their realities and allows for joint reflection on what can be done better – for employees, for customers, for the business.

But for the many leaders that are not dedicating significant time, and who still want to listen and connect with their people, they are typically resorting to occasional focus groups or roundtables with their workers.

The intention is right, but lately, I’ve been repeatedly witnessing and discussing with partners across organizations, the pitfalls of this leader-driven approach to frontline listening.

I’m noticing 2 main traps:

Trap 1: Focus groups/roundtables become the main listening source they trust and prioritize.


“I don’t care what this survey of yours says, Sally told me this is the biggest problem our people face, and I believe her.”

“I don’t need these other data points; my listening sessions are enough.”

When this happens, leaders fall pray to “anecdata” – a few anecdotes skew their perspective and they assume, without quantitative proof, that those few stories reveal issues that are the biggest and most widespread.



Trap 2: These formats lead to discussions where the truth is softened or withheld out of respect and/or fear.

Worker 1: “When he visits our office, are you going to tell Mr. Scott (president) as emphatically as you’ve been telling me – colorful language and all – just how much the recent operations transformation has messed up our ability to get work done?

Worker 2: “Hell no. I do not want to be blacklisted.”

When this happens, leaders don’t hear the truth because the truth is too difficult to convey face-to-face without personal risk.



It doesn’t have to be this way.

I believe we’ve gotten here for many reasons, but one in particular: leaders have been missing a very specific set of KPIs about what it’s like for frontline workers to perform their work.

There is a way for leaders to get KPIs that capture what is breaking down for people in their daily work – for example, in the digital tools they use, the processes they follow or the roles they interact with. KPIs that indicate where there is friction for workers that is slowing them down, that is wasting their time, that is making it hard for them to do a good job, that is making it harder for customers, and that ultimately feels disrespectful.

I want to be clear on one common misconception: process mining tools can’t tell you this – only workers, with their first-person lens on work, can.

When you put in place this kind of measurement and its associated KPIs, it’s like having an X-ray of work*. Suddenly you understand precisely what’s broken and just how broken it is – not for the last 5 people you spoke to, but for your fuller worker-base in a statistically significant way.

And when senior leaders have this kind of precision, then they can evolve focus groups and roundtables, using them to solve the right problems with their people.


*Note: If you want to know what an “X-ray” for frontline work looks like for your workers – message me.

Question: are you witnessing these same challenges as senior leaders attempt to listen to their frontline?


By Stephanie Denino, TI People.