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Focusing on Frontline Team Leaders

Frontline team leaders are critical to the success of teams today. Upward feedback can be a powerful tool in refining the leadership skills of those frontline team leaders.

A group of people sitting around a table in an office.

What single factor has the most impact on inspiring teams to strive for greatness? Of course, there are entire books written on this subject. But at Bain, we came to realize through our own experience that the frontline team leader sets the tone, models the values, sets the priorities and balances individual needs with team needs. Given this critical importance, we select leaders with great care and invest heavily in their training and coaching.

We developed a huddle process to help our team leaders get coaching from their members. Huddle scores arrive frequently and, like grades on homework assignments, are designed primarily for coaching rather than evaluation.

Trusting Upward Feedback

There's a second process we use with teams to help them evaluate their leader: a robust and trusted upward feedback process that takes place every six months. What makes it unique is what we ask, how we use that information and how carefully we designed the process to make it trustworthy.

Bain's approach to teams is somewhat unusual in that our teams disband and reform frequently, so it is very possible that a consultant will get the opportunity to work multiple times with the same team leader. With that in mind, team members rate every leader with whom they have worked during the previous six months by answering one question: "How much would you like to work with this leader again?" To provide coaching insights, we also ask respondents to list the things their leader should start, stop and continue doing in order to improve.

For this process to work, everybody involved has to trust it, which is easier said than done. The team leader has to believe that the correct people are answering the question—meaning, among other things, that those people being surveyed were actually on that team for more than a few days and therefore know what they're talking about. In addition, the team leader has to believe that each of those "correct" people will get one vote and that those votes will be counted accurately.

Equally, the people being surveyed have to be confident that their answers will remain anonymous, so they can be candid without fear of reprisal, and that leadership will use their input appropriately.

Finally, leaders must trust their teams to provide thoughtful and constructive feedback. Again, not simple, but indispensable.

At Bain, we use this process to identify the most inspiring leaders, celebrate their successes and share their best practices. We also provide lots of coaching to help laggards grow and improve.

How to Be Eligible for Promotion

When Mitt Romney handed the reins of the firm to our worldwide managing partner, Tom Tierney, we collectively made a number of important decisions. One that helped put us on a path toward making Bain a great place to work was deciding that only the leaders who were rated highly by their team would be eligible for promotion. When Tierney and I recently reminisced about the Bain turnaround, he reminded me that one of his first tasks as managing partner was to manage out almost half of Bain's partners—those who were not inspiring their teams. Today the firm's promotion policy has evolved, but strong ratings on team upward feedback still provides a major asset in a promotion candidate's portfolio. Many otherwise qualified candidates get passed over because of weak team ratings.

Let me clarify this key point. Team feedback and upward ratings don't solely determine who gets promoted—in fact, there are many dimensions to a promotion-related decision that team members aren't in a position to evaluate. But the upward-feedback hurdle has to be cleared before the individual can even be considered for promotion. Why? One thing that teams most certainly can judge is how well their leader lives the organization's values and thereby is or isn't worthy of trust and respect. By delegating this considerable power to our people, we ensure at every level of the organization that only leaders who live our values can get promoted to positions of more power and authority.

A radical process? Yes and no. It's never easy for the senior leaders of an organization to cede control, especially if their personal fortunes are closely tied to the fortunes of the company. But I'll turn the question around and ask a skeptic to explain why this process, or something like it, shouldn't be adopted by every business that is serious about being a great place to work. Bain believes so deeply in the universal relevance of this process for building a great place to work that we have designed it into a client offering called "Net Promoter for People." 

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted/Excerpted from Winning on Purpose: The Unbeatable Strategy of Loving Customers by Fred Reichheld with Darci Darnell and Maureen Burns. Copyright 2021 by Fred Reichheld and Bain & Company Inc. All rights reserved.

Fred Reichheld is the creator of the Net Promoter System of management, the founder of Bain & Company's Loyalty practice, and the author of five books including The Ultimate Question 2.0. He is currently a fellow and senior advisory partner at Bain.

Darci Darnell is the global head of Bain's Customer practice.

Maureen Burns is a senior partner in Bain's Customer practice.


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