Want to be successful? Support your frontline managers.

John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government and a fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration.

Bob Stone, head of Vice President Al Gore’s reinventing government initiative in the 1990s, focused his attention on what was going on at the front line. He said helping those workers get their jobs done was a leader’s most important activity.

I was reminded of Bob’s insights when I read a recent Harvard Business Review article titled “The Frontline Advantage," by Fred Hassan, a pharmaceutical CEO who led the turnaround of several large, troubled companies. Hassan said the key to his success was engaging frontline leaders, such as shop-floor supervisors and call-center managers.

“The managers most responsible for a company’s success or failure happen to be the ones with whom the CEO spends the least amount of time,” he said.

He goes on to say, “It is the frontline managers who must motivate and bolster the morale of the people who do the work.... These managers are central to a company’s business strategy because they oversee its execution.”

I have seen that principle in action at several government agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Federal Student Aid Office and the Veterans Benefits Administration. Connecting with the frontline was where an agency’s success was made or broken. Fortunately, the government runs a periodic pulse check via the governmentwide Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. The survey can give agency leaders a sense of how well aligned their frontline managers are with agency priorities and employees’ level of trust in senior leaders.

Hassan made me think of Stone when he wrote that “the CEO who leads through the front has a crucial role to play as champion and chief motivator.” His or her role is to “unleash personal engagement and emotional energy [by infusing] people’s tasks and goals with a sense of higher purpose.” Stone exuded higher purpose during his leadership of reinvention efforts. In fact, the title on his business card was energizer-in-chief.

Furthermore, Hassan made a commitment to meet with frontline managers “both formally and informally, on every site visit I made, to communicate my vision and solicit their perspectives and concerns.”

His CEO Dialogues were structured to ensure a genuine exchange with frontline managers. They included eight to 10 participants whom their peers recognized as high performers and a facilitator from the CEO’s immediate staff. After the meetings, a detailed summary and agreed-on action items were sent to the executive staff, with comments kept anonymous. The highlights were later shared with all employees via the organization’s intranet.

Hassan said he got to know a number of frontline supervisors at his company’s manufacturing plants. “I went out of my way to develop personal relationships with them,” he said, adding that he accepted their calls regardless of what he was doing at the time.

He also described how sales managers in one country he visited complained that the bureaucracy involved in getting access to company cars was preventing them from closing deals. Although it seemed trivial, Hassan addressed the issue, and sales increased as a result.

Similarly, retired Gen. Colin Powell once said his job was to deal with the trivial barriers so his staff could get the work done. Many of my most effective bosses saw that as an important part of their jobs. I certainly found it was an important part of mine.

About the Author

John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government and a fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration. He can be reached at

The Fed 100

Read the profiles of all this year's winners.


  • Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign event. Image: Shutterstock

    'Buy American' order puts procurement in the spotlight

    Some IT contractors are worried that the "buy American" executive order from President Trump could squeeze key innovators out of the market.

  • OMB chief Mick Mulvaney, shown here in as a member of Congress in 2013. (Photo credit Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

    White House taps old policies for new government makeover

    New guidance from OMB advises agencies to use shared services, GWACs and federal schedules for acquisition, and to leverage IT wherever possible in restructuring plans.

  • Shutterstock image (by Everett Historical): aerial of the Pentagon.

    What DOD's next CIO will have to deal with

    It could be months before the Defense Department has a new CIO, and he or she will face a host of organizational and operational challenges from Day One

  • USAF Gen. John Hyten

    General: Cyber Command needs new platform before NSA split

    U.S. Cyber Command should be elevated to a full combatant command as soon as possible, the head of Strategic Command told Congress, but it cannot be separated from the NSA until it has its own cyber platform.

  • Image from Shutterstock.

    DLA goes virtual

    The Defense Logistics Agency is in the midst of an ambitious campaign to eliminate its IT infrastructure and transition to using exclusively shared, hosted and virtual services.

  • Fed 100 logo

    The 2017 Federal 100

    The women and men who make up this year's Fed 100 are proof positive of what one person can make possibile in federal IT. Read on to learn more about each and every winner's accomplishments.

Reader comments

Mon, Jun 6, 2011 Jerry exo-beltway

Its seems the most basic lessons are rarely learned in mangt - thus these "news" stories. Managers are s'pose to manage, not work - meaning their whole reason for existance should be to provide their subordinates the tools, support, guidence, beucracrtic-umbrella, et. al. they need not just to get the job done, but to excell.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group