Follow the leaders and ‘walk the floor’

Steven Slater certainly made a name for himself last week. After 15 years as a flight attendant, Slater exploded while working the JetBlue flight from Pittsburgh to New York. Apparently enraged by one of his passengers, Slater broadcast a profanity over the plane’s PA system, grabbed two beers and exited via the emergency exit shute.

Slater is now enjoying his 15 minutes of fame, but it’s what JetBlue did next that has grabbed my attention. A few days after Slater’s moment of madness, a journalist from New York magazine, who was travelling on another JetBlue flight, noticed a particularly perky flight attendant paying very special attention to his passengers.

Closer inspection revealed that the attendant in question was none other than Ed Barnes, the airline’s chief financial officer. Halfway through the flight, Barnes introduced himself, thanked passengers for their continued loyalty and then gave away some free tickets. With the plane about to begin its approach, he then helped the attendants collect the passengers’ trash.

The New York journalist’s explanation for the presence of the CFO on his flight was that clearly JetBlue was making amends after the recent Slater episode. But a spokesman for JetBlue later confirmed that senior executives regularly help out on JetBlue planes: “It’s business as usual.

Our top executives are flying all the time,” said JetBlue spokesman Mateo Lleras. “They help out, they talk to customers. As a company policy, once we land, every single crew member helps clean up the flight and tidy up the plane.”

Ed Barnes’ presence on a JetBlue flight last week was therefore not about managing a crisis created by a beserk flight attendant, but an insight into how great businesses are led. JetBlue has the kind of customer satisfaction data that the likes of British Airways and easyJet would weep for. It consistently appears at the very top of the American measures of best service. And one way it has been able to achieve this level of satisfaction is by doing exactly what Ed Barnes was doing last week and spending a day with a team on a flight.

It’s colloquially referred to as “walking the floor”. It’s a term that was born in the more frantic and more competitive world of retail. Even the biggest executives in retail regularly walk the floor – meaning they get out of their office, they head to one of their stores and they spend the morning talking to staff, watching shoppers and usually helping out on the floor or in the warehouse.

Sir Simon Marks, the legendary boss of Marks & Spencer, used to do it at weekends and his staff referred to the procession of stores he would visit as the “royal route”. Senior executives from Walmart do the same thing in the US, spending two days a week in stores and then take the insights gleaned from the shop floor back to their Bentonville headquarters for discussion the next day. I’ve been stopped in the middle of a session on market research by the CEO of one of the great luxury watch brands, who chided me (quite correctly) that my list of methods did not include “being street smart” and visiting a store in person. Different companies have different names for it, but all the great organisations do it.

The CFO’s presence on a JetBlue flight was not about managing a crisis created by a beserk flight attendant

There is a tragic inversion at the heart of most organisations in which those with all the power have little or no direct exposure to their customers or the everyday operations of the businesses that they run. Great leaders walk the floor, therefore, because it’s the only way to get an immediate and unfiltered injection of consumer orientation into their decision making.

I am not talking about the occasional visit to meet workers, open plants or attend a gala dinner. These sessions are usually stage managed and involve little or no actual insight for the executives involved. I am talking about the kind of visit in which a senior executive regularly takes time out to drop into their organisation and understand what is going on from a consumer and employee perspective.

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Of course, for the majority of the CEOs who populate our FTSE 100, the idea of deviating from the super-important tasks of leadership to do something as prosaic as walking the floor would be instantly dismissed as unrealistic and unnecessary. They are too important and too busy to sell bananas in a supermarket or clean up rubbish on an aeroplane. But I have worked for some superb CEOs and I can tell you that one of the traits they all share is a fascination, one could even say an addiction, to observing how their organisations operate at ground level. In their mind, walking the floor is more important than analyst briefings or board meetings.

And it takes us neatly back to the prime directive of marketing. Despite what some might say, the challenge of marketing is the same now as it was a century ago: understand your customer, and organise your business accordingly. Put that way, how could you ever expect to run an organisation without walking the floor?

Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award-winning columnist and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands

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