Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

Firing Up the Front Line

10/12/1999
For many organizations, achieving competitive advantage means eliciting superior performance from employees on the front line. That's no easy task. Frontline workers are paid low wages, have scant hope of advancement, and often care little about the company's performance. A team of researchers at McKinsey & Company and the Conference Board recently looked at the U.S. Marine Corps' approach based on "mission, value and pride" to engage the emotional energy of rank-and-file workers. As they report in the Harvard Business Review, it's an approach that is both practical and relevant for the business world.

For many organizations, achieving competitive advantage means eliciting superior performance from employees on the front line the burger flippers, hotel room cleaners, and baggage handlers whose work has an enormous effect on customers. That's no easy task. Frontline workers are paid low wages, have scant hope of advancement, and not surprisingly often care little about the company's performance.

But then how do some companies succeed in engaging the emotional energy of rank-and-file workers? A team of researchers at McKinsey & Company and the Conference Board recently explored that question and discovered that one highly effective route is demonstrated by the U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines' approach to motivation follows the "mission, values, and pride" path, which researchers say is practical and relevant for the business world.

More specifically, the authors say the Marines follow five practices: they overinvest in cultivating core value; prepare every person to lead, including frontline supervisors; learn when to create teams and when to create single-leader work groups; attend to all employees, not just the top half; and encourage self-discipline as a way of building pride. (See the exhibits One Destination, Five Roads and Teams and Workgroups: It Pays to Know the Difference.)

The authors admit there are critical differences between the Marines and most businesses. But using vivid examples from companies such as KFC and Marriott International, the authors illustrate how the Marines' approach can be translated for corporate use.

Sometimes, the authors maintain, minor changes in a company's standard operating procedure can have a powerful effect on frontline pride and can result in substantial payoffs in company performance.

From the Harvard Business Review, May 1999

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