Are You Sending the Wrong People to Leadership Training?

Upside down triangle showing how support within a company should flow from the bottom up. Executives support senior managers, who support, frontline employees, who serve the company's customers.

For over ten years, I have been working with companies to improve their operations, from small companies with less than 100 employees to multinational corporations with tens of thousands of employees. What I have experienced has been stunning, and I wanted to share what I’ve learned. 

All the well-managed companies exhibit the same qualities. Unfortunately, this is less than 20% of the companies. I will deal with the other 80% later in this article. The well-managed companies understand that the only employees who can accomplish the company’s mission are those who create the products or perform the company’s services. Most companies organize in a triangular formation, with frontline employees at the bottom and C-level employees at the top. Successful companies understand to achieve the company’s full potential, they must turn the triangle upside down, and customers are added at the top (see illustration). Every manager must understand for the company to accomplish its mission, they must support the frontline employees and create policies that enable the company to understand:

  1. why a customer wants a product or service and provides what they want
  2. when they want it, 
  3. where they want it, or how they want it delivered by friendly, knowledgeable, and well-trained staff.

Management must eliminate any policy that makes it harder for frontline employees to do their job or alienates customers.  

Well-Managed Companies have a Customer-Focused Mission Statement, Live by It, and Understand that Customer Service Is King.


Almost every company’s mission statement says they are customer-focused, but only well-managed companies live by it. Amazon has decimated the retail sector by offering exceptional customer service. Wal-Mart was late out of the gate but is making great strides to catch up.

Once I brought evidence of this to management’s attention, you would think they would make efforts to change. But the resistance to change seems so ingrained in most of these managers that they will defend their policies and allow the company to go bankrupt before admitting they’re wrong. A parade of business failures among iconic US companies resulted from this failure to listen to customers and frontline managers. Blockbuster, Toys “R” Us, Borders, Kodak, Sears, Circuit City, and Payless Shoes are a few of the companies that have failed because of poor customer service. These companies failed while senior management sat around and refused to adapt to changing customer demands. 

I recommend every staff member receive training in customer service, especially senior managers. 

Well-Managed Companies have a Sales and Operations Plan (S&OP)

Just as critical as the mission statement is the S&OP. The mission statement is what the company wants to accomplish. The S&OP is the company’s plan to get there. To understand the importance of the S&OP, let’s say you wanted one of your employees to go from California to New York. You don’t tell them what transportation to take or how to pay for it, where in New York you want them to go, where they will stay and for how long, and what you want them to do when they get there. What do you think their chances of success are? Trying to accomplish the company’s mission without an S&OP laying out management’s vision for achieving the mission will result in similar results. Everyone in the company should have access to this document. 

Our Leadership Training for Managers course covers the mission statement and the S&OP, plus more.

What Is the Other 80% Doing?

Understand it’s rare these problems occur in isolation. Companies in trouble will display most or all of these problems. 

The number one problem I have encountered causing the operational issues are policies created by senior managers who are out of touch with their frontline managers and, most importantly, their customers. Senior managers will reduce the frontline workforce when sales decline and close stores instead of addressing the fundamental problem of poor customer service. What got them in trouble in the first place was poor customer service. This move only exacerbates the problem, and the steady decline to business failure has begun.  

The offending policymakers and senior managers do not understand one of their primary duties is to support the frontline workers and managers. They become too comfortable in their position and provide indifferent leadership. Being in a support role is foreign to most senior managers. The prevailing attitude is I have paid my dues, I’m a senior manager now, and you will do as I say. They create policies with little regard for how it affects the employees impacted by them.  

No Defined Company Mission Statement or S&OP

Rarely do frontline managers know what the company’s mission is. When I ask the question, I usually get something like, “I guess it’s to make X product.” Managers without a clear understanding of the company’s mission and how the company wants to accomplish the mission are mostly directionless with no guide for decision-making. Without this critical guidance, companies fall victim to what is called the strategy du jour, when companies introduce a plan that is widely used or popular at the current time and usually does not fix the underlying company problems.  

Policies that Drive Away Customers

Policies created by senior managers only concerned with the bottom line put frontline employees in the position of telling customers one of the things customers hate hearing most, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do about this; it’s company policy.” There is no better way to drive away customers than to have restrictive return policies, arbitrary deadlines, or anything else that makes the buying experience problematic. 

Poorly Trained Front-Line Employees

Poorly motivated frontline managers and employees do not understand the importance of customer service due to a lack of customer service training. Remember to the customer that surly,  indifferent worker is the company. Research has shown:

  • it costs a business six-seven times more to attract a new customer than it does to keep an existing one
  • a typical dissatisfied customer will tell eight to ten people about their problem
  • seven of ten customers will do business with you again…if you resolve the complaint in their favor
  • if you resolve a complaint on the spot, 95% of customers will do business again
  • of those customers who quit, 68% do so because of an attitude of indifference by the company or a specific individual

No employee without training in customer service should be allowed to interact with customers!

Fear of Technology/Fear of Change

The business community is uncomfortable with change because we can’t anticipate the outcome. Still, staying put can be even riskier than changing; ask any now-defunct iconic companies because a business resistant to change risks losing everything.

It’s human nature to resist uncertainty because our brain prefers a predictable negative outcome over an uncertain one. Many senior managers and business owners can’t wrap their minds around embarking on an entirely new and different direction for the company. Managers counting down the months to retirement convince themselves the status quo is preferable to the risk of striking out in a new direction.

Many senior managers and business owners fear technology, also known as technophobia*. This fear is surprisingly common, with some experts believing we all suffer at least a small amount of nervousness when confronted with new technology. It can be easy to feel out of touch in today’s rapidly changing world. 

One of the most basic technological fears among senior managers and business owners is the loss of control. We don’t necessarily understand exactly how a new technology works, so our imaginations fill in the details. It’s human nature to want to control our environment, and it’s scary to think we might not have as much control as we had hoped. 

Ivory Tower Effect 

Another question I always ask is, “Do you see senior managers walking the work area talking to you and your co-workers every few days?” There is usually some laughter, and someone will volunteer the information they rarely, if ever, get to talk with a senior manager. Senior managers who hole up in their offices and fail to interact with the only people who can accomplish the company’s mission are missing a tremendous opportunity to understand the problems and challenges frontline workers face. 

Walk-on Water Behavior

I see a lot of this type of behavior. Senior managers feel they are always the smartest person in the room, and no one could have better ideas than they can decimate a company’s morale. Their my way or the highway mentality creates an absence of trust and leads to communication breakdown. Frontline employees give up trying to improve things because they know that the manager will arbitrarily dismiss any suggestions they make. This behavior can have various causes: an obsession with individual success, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and withdrawal. 

Policies that Handicap Front Line Managers/Silo Mentality

This problem develops when we rate senior managers on their department’s performance. What emerges is division, secrets, and mistrust of other departments. Doing what’s best for one department can harm other departments. For example, the production manager overproduces because larger lot sizes reduce their per-piece costs while creating a severe problem for the warehouse manager, that must cope with all the extra inventory and associated costs. Senior manager KPI (Key Performance Indicators) should include evaluations by other department heads to identify detrimental actions to other departments. 

What are some of the warning signs leadership problems exist in your company?: 

Declining or Stagnant Sales

This one should be obvious, but many managers rationalize the problem away. In addition to watching sales figures, one metric every senior manager should monitor religiously is the Net Promoter Score (NPS). NPS is a management tool used to gauge the loyalty of a firm’s customer relationships. A decline in the NPS is a clear warning sign you are losing your customers due to poor customer service. 

High Employee Turn-Over

The most obvious warning sign is high employee turnover. Do you know why employees leave your company? Does your company require exit interviews? There are very few reasons someone would leave your company if we provide proper management.

In most cases, companies with high turnover rates fail to meet the motivational needs of their employees; see Herzberg’s Theory of Motivation and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. For example, if you ask your customer service representatives and frontline employees to enforce policies that upset your customers, who, in turn, express their displeasure in a harsh and demeaning way, why are you surprised when employees quit? Managers should never create policies without input from the people expected to implement them. 

No Accountability for Senior Managers

Senior managers must understand they are responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen within their area of responsibility and must be held accountable. Blaming poor performance on frontline workers is just an excuse for the failure of senior management. 

The best way to hold managers accountable is through bottom-up evaluations. Along with traditional forms of employee evaluation, frontline managers should evaluate the departments they interact with on how well they support the frontline effort. Managers should establish three to five KPIs for each department that reflects its performance in supporting the company mission. The department doing the evaluation should help create the KPIs. For example, the warehouse manager should suggest KPIs evaluating their production interactions, purchasing (including supplier ratings), and 3PL logistic services. The production manager would provide KPIs, assessing their interactions with purchasing, the warehouse, maintenance, and HR. 

One of the most important KPIs for every manager is employee turnover. Managers should immediately review any department with a high turnover rate. 

* the fear or dislike of advanced technology or complex devices, such as robots, 3D printing, artificial intelligence (AI), and the internet of things (IoT), to name a few.

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