Leading from the Front Line

Leading from the Front Line

When I speak with agency customer service staff ; receptionists, CSRs, and bookkeepers; about leadership, the response is generally rolling eyes and a shaking head indicating, “If I were in charge, things would be different.”

News flash for those waiting for the perfect leader to follow “Don’t wait” become a leader yourself. I’m not suggesting you mutiny or overthrow the person in charge. Leadership is not found in position; it’s found in action and influence. Great leaders inspire the best in us. They are role models for appropriate behavior, are open to the ideas of others, and relate to others with passion and compassion. Constructive leaders can be relied upon to keep their word, explain their thinking process, and step up when needed.

Nowhere in those qualities does it say a leader must have a title of owner, manager, or supervisor. Too many employees abdicate their position of influence and knowledge because they aren’t the boss. What a waste of talent, personal potential and the ability to make a difference!

Here are several ways to become a leader in your organization, without a change of position or title.
Have a leader’s attitude. John Maxwell, an author of more than thirty books on leadership, said, “Leadership has less to do with position than it has with disposition. Take a quick measure of your temperament and personality. How do your colleagues view you? Are you approachable? Do you maintain a balance of professionalism and personal interest? Having a personal interest in someone without getting involved can be a challenge for many front-line people.

Personal connection is not friendship; it’s having a listening ear with emotional support. There’s a line not to be crossed to assure that personal caring and professional character remain appropriate and separate. I’ve witnessed employees who are friends with a coworker struggle with how to deal with a conflicting business situation.

A word of caution for those businesses who hire employees; friends and family. Consider the impact on reporting situations and work teams. What will you do if things go awry resolving performance or personal situations? An agency client hired the sister-in-law of a good employee. Several years later, her brother and sister-in-law divorced. While the two women worked in separate departments, they worked in close proximity to each other. To their credit, they didn’t bring their family situation to the office.

Leading from the front line attitude is exhibiting professionalism and maturity no matter what life unfolds.

Have a leader’s persona. Picture a person you view as confident, knowledgeable, and expert in his or her profession. Consider body language, verbal language and conversational skills, personal grooming, and personal work environment. Make a list of ten things you admire that represents leadership qualities. Here are ten qualities that I believe represent professionalism and influence in a work environment. Correct posture both walking and sitting; well-fitting clothes; neatly groomed hair and nails; smiles and makes eye contact when speaking with others; never gossips or spreads tales; respects others’ work space and privacy; practices proper eating manners and table etiquette; extends a hand for a proper handshake; silences her cell phone for all meetings; and encourages others to contribute thoughts and is open to other ideas.

What qualities do you demonstrate that tell others you mean business? What attributes can you work on to enhance your front-line leadership position?

Keep emotions in check. For some front-line associates, controlling emotional response requires constant monitoring. Emotions not appropriate for the workplace include crying, pouting, anger, distrust and fear. Any of these will cripple productive work and create a dysfunctional work environment. Coworkers distance themselves from those they find emotionally unpredictable. Why say good morning to someone when the response could be unpleasant? Why ask a question if the reply implies distrust?

There are two parties involved to keep heightened emotions under control; you and the other person. No matter who initiates what’s perceived as inappropriate emotional behavior, it’s up to you to recognize and manage the situation. Here are five steps to diffuse emotionally charged circumstances.

1. Recognize and understand the emotional charge. Is your coworker angry or just excited? Are you dealing with anxiety or is it full-fledged panic?

2. What’s the source of the feelings? Are you recalling a similar past situation that caused the emotion and not today’s reality? Could your coworker’s reaction be a result of something having nothing to do with the situation at hand?

3. Unhook from the source. Take a deep breath, acknowledge the emotion, and deal with it directly. Say to yourself “I will not get plugged into; a snippy tone of voice, rushed coworker, feelings of doubt about my job, etc.” If you need to remove yourself from the situation until the emotions clear, do so.

4. Acknowledge aloud what you are feeling or what you sense from your coworker. Do this in a non-confrontational way. For example, “I’m sorry I’m so angry about this. It’s not directed at you. This situation happened last week and it was a lot of extra work.” Or if you’re the recipient of the emotional charge, say to your coworker, “I feel frustrated because this happens all the time.” Do not say, “You do this all the time. I-messages explain where you’re coming from and avoids unproductive, accusatory language.

5. Use business tools and strategies that will help avoid emotionally charged encounters. For example, handling large commercial renewals can be a stressful challenge for your team. Make the process smooth and predictable by implementing and adhering to a renewal workflow with scheduled meetings, accountabilities and timelines.

Strong emotions result from any number of personal factors. The office is not the place to deal with the psychology of the issues. Leading from the front-line is knowing how to divorce yourself from the emotional charge to get work done to meet agency, department, and individual goals.

Self-manage. Quite simply, don’t wait to be told what to do. Managing yourself is the highest level of leading from the front line. Keep your own work accurate and current.

Come to meetings; one-on-one or group; on time, prepared, and eager to participate. At group meetings, sit close to the person in charge to make a statement about your intent and interest. Don’t just be punctual, be early to get that good seat.

Know that work and priorities often change. Be open and flexible to adapt. Anticipate problems and speak up if it will help avoid them. Offer solutions that identify the problem, provide background and perspective, research possible solutions and the affects, and make a suggestion to resolve.

Be willing to do what others don’t see or won’t do. A commercial lines CSR in a small agency stepped up to solve a problem of organizing, filing and retrieving insurance company information. Information arrived in the agency to various people through paper, e-mail, marketing reps, and conversations with the company personnel. There was not a central place to retain, and even more important, retrieve the information. The agency did not have an Intranet and it had been on a to-do list for a long time. The CSR produced a plan to assign companies to different people, created shared electronic folders, established filing and scanning procedures, and so on to solve the company information headache. Within a week, the program was up and running to the delight of all.

Leaders are needed at every level of an organization. Stepping up to further contribute to the success of your employer not only brings personal satisfaction, it raises the bar for others to contribute more as well. Everyone wants to be on a winning team. What can you do to lead an improvement in productivity, morale, or teamwork in your agency?

The author

Emily Huling, CIC, CMC helps the insurance industry create top-performing sales and customer service organizations. She is the author of Selling from the Inside and Kick Your “But.” For information on her programs and products call 888-309-8802 or visit www.sellingstrategies.com.

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