ATD Blog

What it Takes to Empower Front Line Employees

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

While people at different levels in organizations all start out the same, they are dealing with very different contexts. Thus it takes different things to inspire and enable them. At best, those at the top of the organization are closer to the owners and the strategy and those on the front lines are closer to customers and the organization’s purpose. When deal with the front line, focus on empowering, collaborating, and trusting.

Empower Others

Peter Shankman, serial entrepreneur and marketing guru, regaled us the first ever TEDxTimesSquare this past month with “Nice Finishes First” stories. In one example, he related how a maid at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel noticed he was low on toothpaste and bought him a new tube. He was so impressed that he tweeted a picture of the note she’d written. The Ritz later told him they had tracked “thousands of dollars” of reservations back to his tweet.

This story would come as no surprise to DeRose and Tichy, who, In their new book, “Judgment on the Front Line: How Smart Companies Win By Trusting Their People explored the Ritz-Carlton’s ideas and values, education, experimentation, mindset and investment that leads to stories like Shankman’s. They know that maids, and all other Ritz-Carlton front line employees, are empowered to spend up to $2000 to “improve a guest’s experience, handle a complaint or fix a problem.”

Switch from Conflict to Collaboration


DeRose and Tichy also describe the power of the Mayo Clinic’s “Plus One” program, which explicitly empowers any front line employee to have their boss call in a second opinion when they think patient care is at risk.

TEDxTimesSquare speaker Mark Taylor went further, suggesting that “diads” or one-on-one discussions lead to conflict while “triads” lead to collaboration and more productive solutions.

Inspire with Trust


If you’ve got a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose, you’ll get your front line employees devoting themselves to the cause over time. Trust in that. And trust in them. DeRose and Tichy bring a number of other examples to the forefront:

IBM’s head of human resources, Randy McDonald gets it, saying “Trust people at the lower levels. They live it. They understand it.” Randy described how one of our country’s worst days was one of IBM’s best as its front line employees faced their customers’ business disruptions by skipping all of IBM’s internal protocols and doing whatever it took to get them back up and running as soon as practical.

In their book, DeRose and Tichy lay out a relatively straightforward five-step model that will help inspire and enable the front line. It’s worth digging into:

  1. Connect Front Line to the Customer
  2. Teach People to Think for Themselves
  3. Experiment to Implement
  4. Break Down the Hierarchy
  5. Invest in Front Line Capacity
About the Author

George Bradt has a unique perspective on transformational leadership based on his experience as a business leader, consultant, and journalist. He progressed through sales, marketing, and general management roles around the world at companies including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and J.D. Power’s Power Information Network spin-off as chief executive. Now he is a principal of CEO Connection and managing director of the executive onboarding group PrimeGenesis.

George is a graduate of Harvard and Wharton (MBA), co-author of four books on onboarding, including The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, and co-author of a weekly column on, The New Leader’s Playbook.

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