Seven Simple Strategies for Frontline Leaders

Valuing frontline staff is the most important part of becoming a frontline leader – be it in health administration or any other field. A culture that values frontline staff creates loyalty. This loyalty has many advantages including increased performance, retention, quality control, engagement, productivity, and morale. Each outcome contributes to the bottom line. As CEO of Scripps Health, overseeing a dramatic turn around, I’ve seen the benefits first hand.

Years ago, I was a hospital security officer working the graveyard shift. As you can imagine this shift is often lonely and quiet. One night I noticed the hospital CEO walking toward me in the basement hallway. I was surprised to see him. I’d grown up in modest circumstances and this was my chance to make an impression on the boss. Excited to introduce myself and take a moment to chat I straightened up and smiled. He walked right past me, not even meeting my eyes. He didn’t see me as important enough to engage. To him I was just a security officer. However, if a security situation arose I’d be the most important employee in that moment.

Whether you’re the CEO, a frontline healthcare provider, or anyone in between, you can benefit by employing these basic strategies. By building meaningful relationships with and empowering employees you too can become a frontline leader. Here are seven strategies to get you started:

1. Show Up

 This one may seem obvious but you’d be surprised how many leaders become disconnected from front line employees simply by separating themselves physically. There’s a great big organization out there and they spend their time in their office. If your territory is your office then your information pipeline is very short indeed. You depend on what information comes into your office directly. You’re out of the loop in the worst way. My first suggestion is get out and see your world. Seek out interactions in places you wouldn’t normally frequent. Be the leader that surprises employees with the places you show up. As with all the strategies this isn’t about doing something once but showing up time and again.

2. Be Present

You and I both know it’s not enough to merely show up. The CEO that walked past me as if I was invisible is proof of that. The first rule of presence is engagement. It’s the primary purpose. Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Leaders must listen and respond with genuine emotion and interest to their teams’ needs. Remember, this isn’t a political campaign of handshakes and kissing babies, it’s a chance to build relationships. Look for opportunities to connect. Be consistent. The next few strategies will give you ideas and tools to engage with your employees.

3. Demonstrate Empathy

You’ll be surprised how easy this is once you’ve got the first two strategies down. One of the best ways to engage with frontline employees is through understanding. Ask questions. Be accessible and stay accessible. While 24/7 is impossible for anyone to sustain, immediate responses will always have a greater impact. Also, it’s important to show your empathy, don’t merely feel it. Sometimes leaders mistakenly project a stoic persona, but by not demonstrating empathy leaders come across as cold and uncaring. This creates distance in relationships and undermines connection. It’s not just the physicians, nurses, and other caregivers for whom this is important.

4. Practice Awareness

Being responsive to your environment during these interactions allows you to pick up on subtle cues and take the temperature of the room. As you settle in to being physically and emotionally present you find you’ll naturally begin to pay more attention to your environment. When we’re not busy worrying about others perceptions of us, and are engaged in listening, we free up energy to pay closer attention to what’s going on around us. This will give you nuanced insights into your organization and team – especially in high-intensity environments like hospitals, surgical centers, and doctor’s offices. Think of everything that’s said in a conversation as only a small part of the information you need to gather as a frontline leader.

5. Share Yourself

One of the places most leaders fall down on the job is being inauthentic. They’re afraid to be vulnerable and known to others. Leadership has created a mental barrier that separates them from other people. Be honest about who you are, where you come from, and what you value. If you manage to practice all the previous strategies but don’t share your authentic self, you can’t build lasting relationships. Frontline leadership is about creating, reinforcing, and nurturing strong relationships.

6. Empower Your People

As you develop strong relationships you’ll see frontline employees wanting to step up. This is your opportunity to empower them. Encouraging authority, accountability, and responsibility at all levels creates a high performance team. Your role as leader is not to micromanage every detail of your organization but to rely on hundreds or thousands of people, each working toward a common purpose to be willing to make important decisions, exercise discretion, and answer for those choices. Let your employees know you trust them implicitly. They’ll earn it.

7. Be a Storyteller

Humans are wired for stories. They’re easier for us to remember. Stories fire up our passion and move us. We’re motivated to perform when we know our actions make a difference. Telling compelling and emotionally engaging stories is a great way to build community. Once you’ve enacted the above strategies this becomes easy. A good story is in the details. As an engaged, frontline leader you’ll have lots of good stories. You’ll naturally connect emotionally to your stories and so will your audience. Recount stories that connect positive outcomes to the work frontline employees do every day. Most importantly, give employees the opportunity to tell their own stories. Good stories create cohesion among teams, departments, and across the organization.

Risks and Rewards

I’ve come to understand the risks and rewards of being a frontline leader. Staying connected is hard work. It’s risky to share leadership with others, to be vulnerable and authentic, and to maintain connections. But the rewards far outweigh these risks. Be honest, humble, grateful, and encouraging. By doing so you’ll contribute to the success of your organization in ways you never imagined.

EMHA Program Director Mike Nichol with Chris Van Gorder - USC Commencement 2014

Closing Thoughts

My response to that demoralizing experience as a seemingly invisible security guard changed how I view the role of leadership to this day. I vowed that if I was ever in a position of authority that I would respond to front line employees differently. I went back to school to get a degree in health administration from USC. After years of successfully enacting my new strategies for frontline leaders, I wrote my first book, The Front-Line Leader: Building a High Performance Organization from the Ground Up .

 CTA Comparative Employment Growth Healthcare

Written by Chris Van Gorder