5 Reasons a CEO Should Spend Time in the Trenches

As a leader at your company, you probably aren’t looking for more to add to your to-do list, but you should always be seeking ways to improve your leadership and your company. And while there are many benefits to working in and around management — like peer insight and guidance from mentors — the rest of your workforce has a lot to offer as well.

Here are five reasons why you need to spend time in the trenches with your employees:

1. Gain Empathy

Great leaders are able to inspire and incentivize people to be their very best. This requires the ability to see the world through the eyes of your team members. Understanding their professional challenges and aspirations comes easier if you’ve “been there.”

A fantastic example of a leader who dove into the trenches to uncover the challenges facing different roles in his company is Frontier Airlines CEO Bryan Bedford, who appeared on an episode of “Undercover Boss.” While working in several low-level roles within the airline, he discovered huge flaws in the company’s operations, from employees having only seven minutes to clean an entire plane between flights to cross-utilization agents shifting between checking in patrons to manually loading luggage onto the plane in 104-degree heat.

Without having shared your team members’ experiences, or at least witnessed them, it’s hard to motivate them. You also gain respect by demonstrating your willingness to humble yourself, your motivation to learn from them and your ability to value their efforts for the company.

2. Improve Leadership

If you want to direct an orchestra, you have to learn at least the basics of every kind of instrument. You can’t tell the string musicians how to make a sound you want if you don’t have a firm understanding of how they play their instruments.

It’s the same in business. You need to know the ins and outs of each department so you can direct them. Understanding what makes a sales professional successful allows a business leader to better mentor those in sales who need help.

3. Grow in General Knowledge

Being a generalist means understanding what makes your company tick. Knowing a little bit about a lot of things enables you to know what results the company needs from each department or team member.

Great business leaders understand financial requirements, supply chain challenges, talent needs, marketing strategies, product development cycles, legal matters and market pressures. They then use that broad, general knowledge to connect the dots and successfully execute winning strategies. Spreading your time across multiple departments will give you more knowledge about many different parts of your company.

4. Grow in Expertise

Most leaders “grow up” in one department before they’re elevated to management. They may have been great at sales or excelled as an attorney or software developer. There’s great value in being an expert, but once you attain a leadership position, you’ll likely run into situations that require expertise you don’t have.

It’s important to recognize this and reserve time and resources to expand your repertoire. In the book, “The Corporate Lattice,” Cathleen Benko and Molly Anderson discuss how careers are built by gaining new skills and explain that an “options-oriented” organizational approach lets professionals achieve better results. The best way to expand your expertise is to talk to another expert.

5. Learn More about Interconnections

Businesses are complex machines with many moving parts. What happens in one department affects another department, and it’s your job to know what will result from every decision you make. The more you hone this skill, the better you can manage.

A strong leader understands how a last-minute “product design change” might influence costs, delivery dates, copyright law considerations, raw material requirements and marketing creative.

I’m not suggesting that you go all “Undercover Boss” and try to expose gaping issues within your company. But if you spend quality time with each department, you’ll gain essential knowledge and experience. While you may think you don’t have time to do this, you really can’t afford not to. Your job as a CEO depends on it.

(Originally published by Michel Koopman at www.ceo.com in 2013)