Inauguration Wisdom: Knowing Your Business From the Front Lines

Four years ago today, I was up early, on the Metro and headed to The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, DC at 22nd and M Streets. Suit, overcoat, heels, gold nametag. I was going to be a doorman for the day: Inauguration Day.At The Ritz-Carlton, it's something called lateral service. You help out others where needed, developing your own skill set along the way. Sometimes it's planned, like for events like this where a particular hotel knows it's going to be busy. Other times, it's unplanned--a business trip to Naples, Florida once turned into a housekeeping lesson when I learned the team there was short-staffed.

Lateral service is a basic, yet incredible concept. You can read more about it in Joseph Michelli's book on The Ritz-Carlton: The New Gold Standard. But the premise is this--the ladies and gentlemen (what they call employees) are there to support each other. It's an environment of mutual respect and support. So when the local hotels put out the call to the corporate office, everyone who could chip in did.

But the idea of lateral service is beyond altruism--it's business immersion at its finest. Employees who don't normally work in a certain area or department offer help when needed but are also exposed to the business in new ways. When I was at The Home Depot we worked on the front line too. I learned how to make keys, mix paint, load in inventory from incoming trucks. At that time, the C-level executives did it too. At least once a year, they'd be dispatched to stores all over the country working alongside hourly staff to understand what was really going on in the business.

Why don't all companies do this? You don't have to be in the service sector to see the value. As a leader, it's so easy to be disconnected from your front line, your entry-level workers. And it's easy to stay up in your perch. But instead of being lazy, imagine the value you'd get from hearing the idle chatter of employees, seeing the systems your teams developed at work, watching problems get solved real-time.

At The Ritz-Carlton, it was ingrained in the culture. At a management meeting in Naples, when they addressed the issue of being short several housekeepers that day, I volunteered immediately. It's just what you did. And the value of that day was enormously helpful. Not only to them (those who know me know how much I adore clean), but more so to me. I spent the day seeing firsthand the difficulties of the job, the relationships the housekeepers had and how they delivered the experience minute by minute. And I took that back to the corporate office. It influenced actual work I was doing.

You don't have to have a grandiose plan--you can start small. How about a half a day in a different office, store or business location? Sit in on meetings about topics you know nothing about. Find out who is paid the least in your organization and work alongside them. There are dozens of ways to get a different view.

As I work from the warmth of my home office today just a few miles from the Capitol, I'm reminded about the importance of experience, the holistic picture of being a leader. When you stand up at a podium and make promises to over one million people standing in front of you, that's one heck of a view, one heck of a perspective to have. But regardless of who takes that oath, that person has to drill down into the everyday and understand the plight of the American people firsthand--his customers. And so should you.

Get out there. Maybe not today (it's insanity down on the Mall). But get out there. Start a pilot, ask for a half-day. Learn your business, experience it from the view of your most connected employees--the ones serving the customers.


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