- Organizations have to decentralize to be successful but this poses challenges and can create additional risks to the business.
- These risks can be reduced significantly by empowering, trusting and educating front-line employees.
- Front-line employees will have the majority of client-facing time so they must be considered in the comms strategy and be included in messaging efforts.
Modern organizations have to be decentralized to be successful: a rigid, top-down hierarchy with a small group of centralized decision-makers issuing rigid plans won’t work in today’s high-speed world. Instead, an organization – whether it’s an airline, a fast-food chain or bank – has to delegate significant autonomy to front-line employees to ensure that the organization is nimble and flexible enough to succeed.
But how does a business manage the risks associated with this kind of decentralization? The organization still has to bear the brunt of any crisis but most of the challenges to its reputation will arise at the store level.
United States Marine Corps General Charles Krulak developed the idea of the ‘Strategic Corporal’, sometimes referred to as Krulak’s Law, back in the 1990s. Krulak identified that in a dynamic, complex battlefield, troops could be engaged in war-fighting in one area while, three blocks away, their colleagues could be rebuilding a local school. These diverse challenges require decentralized execution of the mission, meaning that the individual Marine becomes the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy. He or she will directly impact the immediate tactical situation in front of them but will also influence the operational and strategic levels much more than would have been the case in more rigid environments.
This is the situation that businesses are now in where the front-line employee is the face and voice of the organization, much more so than the corporate center. This requires a high quality of leadership and decision-making at the front line and a great deal of autonomy at the lowest levels of the organization. However, the military has considerable resources in place to train and prepare troops for this kind of responsibility but what can a company do?
I believe that there are three key elements to making a decentralized organization work and these can be put into practice no matter the size or kind of organization you have.
Delegate authority in addition to responsibility
The frontline employees dealing with your customers need to be able to understand risk, manage risk and make appropriate decisions knowing that they have the responsibility and authority to do so. In short, they need permission to make decisions and to know that you trust them to make the right call.
In the case of Dr. Dao, the unfortunate United passenger who was violently pulled off one of their flights in 2016, the problem arguably arose because the gate agent lacked authority. So instead of being able to exercise judgment and make a decision based on what would be best for the passenger and airline, they stuck to what they had been trained to do and called in the police. This significantly escalated the situation resulting in Dr. Dao sustaining serious injuries and United’s reputation taking significant damage.
The gate agent was still responsible for what was happening but had no authority to change things. However, everyone could have benefitted if United had applied Krulak’s concept of the strategic corporal and allowed the person at the frontline to have the authority to make decisions and to take action appropriate for the situation. These decisions usually accrue to the positive for a company and in this case, could have avoided the incident altogether. Give your employees wide latitude to make decisions and ensure that they know they are empowered to do so. Remember, their small acts of humanity, generosity, and kindness all help build up your reservoir of goodwill.
Make risk management a two-way street
Managing corporate risk, particularly in reputational terms, requires a partnership between the teams responsible for Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) and communications. To me, one of the main roles for communicators in these discussions is to ensure that everyone understands that the flow of risk information needs to be a two-way street.
Although any eventual crisis will hit the organization at the top, the ERM team needs to be reminded that the front-line is the most likely source of a critical moment. This is also where corrective action can be most effective. These front-line risks have to be incorporated into the organization’s risk map.
However, it is equally important to ensure that employees understand the mission and values of your organization, understand the concepts of ‘doing the right thing‘, and how their actions impact the organization. Those working at the coal face have to understand the risks the business faces if they are to be successful.
We’re currently working with a client that had a frontline employee at one of their facilities falsify training records; not only did they falsify these records, they simply did not conduct any of the mandatory training. This probably seemed like a small infraction to the individual but their lack of training led to an accident in which a client was injured. The resultant investigation and scrutiny of the firm, during which the lack of training was discovered, was great enough to cause that particular location to close down.
This is an otherwise great company with very smart and empathetic leadership. They are doing all the right things and have a sophisticated understanding of the risks that could impact their company. But this one local leader’s decision to not bother with training has had more of a reputational impact than any strategic initiative around pricing or decision on site location could have had.
Communicate the mission and intent
Finally, the most important thing in a decentralized organization is to ensure that everyone understands both the mission and the intent of the organization. The mission will tell them what it is you are trying to achieve but the intent is key to helping them determine the appropriate way to get there. Two organizations might have the same mission, say to be the biggest supplier of pediatric medicine in the world. However, if one is a for-profit pharmaceutical company and the other is the Gates Foundation, the intent of each is going to be very different. Understanding the intent will give employees latitude and constraints to help direct them while they fulfill their mission.
Unfortunately, having sat in many corporate headquarters, I’ve often heard the phrase ‘We need to make this as simple as possible for our frontline employees‘. It always makes me sad when the corporate center doesn’t value its workers, but in this case, dumbing things down is also short-sighted. Even though they might be hourly workers, these team members are the face of the organization and their understanding of the mission and intent has a 10x or 100x impact on how the organization is viewed compared to whatever the CEO says.
A company owns its brand but the public owns its reputation and the public will always be dealing with your front-line employees. Communicators have to think about store-level risk, and how they can empower and build trust in those on the frontline to do the right thing. Simply crossing your fingers and hoping they get it is not the right way to do it.
Instead, take the long view and follow Krulak’s law and ensure that you train, empower and build trust in your strategic corporals. Talk to them as adults, ensure they know where the organization is headed and why, and remember that they are the face of the organization. This will ensure that those at the front line are properly equipped for their role so your organization can be nimble and effective.
Too often we get called in when companies have been let down by employee behavior but these instances overshadow those times where front-line employees go above and beyond to build and enhance the brand. These small successess and positive behaviors should be celebrated and acknowledged as a reminder that a properly prepared and motivated decentralized organization isn’t something to fear, it’s something to strive for.