Bob Latvis has a long history in field service. He started as a field technician at Cox Communications more than 30 years ago and worked his way up through the ranks to serve as the Regional VP of Field Operations at Cox before taking a role as the Regional VP of Technical Operations at Comcast Cable. As a leader within these organizations, Latvis has always focused on being accessible and authentic – traits that have contributed to his success in leading these organizations through decades of change.
Change abounds in the field service space – we’re witnessing an evolution in the delivery of service, rapid changes in customer demands, technology advancements that allow for a brand-new way of operating, a younger generation of technicians coming into play, and much more. All these changes are exciting, but they each present their own challenges. In such a transformative time, strong and effective leadership in field service has never been more important.
What constitutes strong leadership? Latvis and I discussed three key characteristics that he feels constitute strong field service leadership.
Foster Your Relatability and Authenticity
The first step in increasing your relatability and authenticity is to have a really strong awareness of and appreciation for what’s going on across the entire business. “I’ve found that it’s helpful to stay current with what is happening in peripheral departments,” says Latvis.
For instance, there is great benefit for the field service leader to attend a marketing team meeting, or to have regular one-on-one meetings with finance or supply chain. Seeking out perspective on how other departments are approaching their business challenges helps to enhance your broader perspective as well as observe how other leaders lead.
Latvis also points out the importance of humility and argues that you can’t be relatable without a heavy dose of it. “In order to be a successful leader, you have to show humility. If you’re the VP coming into a room full of technicians, be humble. Be willing to listen and not be the biggest voice in the room. Just be there as a sponge. Think of it as asking for help in your own development. Employees will embrace that vulnerability. You don’t have to have street credibility; you can build your credibility up by saying, ‘I need your help to be successful.’”
Consider how building your relatability and authenticity will enable you to get closer to your employees, which will in turn help you to improve your operations. “When you’re relatable and your team is comfortable approaching you, they can really help you solve your business problems and define your business strategy. Remember, your frontline employees have a direct pipeline to your customers; they see them every day and talk to them every day — they are gold mines of information. If they don’t feel you’re approachable or relatable, they may see four or five things that could really improve your business but not approach you because they are afraid you would take that as criticism versus ‘Wow, your idea could really save us time, save us money, could improve our customer satisfaction.’”
Latvis suggests keeping in mind the difference between compliance and commitment. “Anyone can create a compliant work environment but doing so will give you the bare minimum of performance. If you work toward creating a committed environment, you’ll get much more because people are committed to doing a great job versus just compliant to doing the bare minimum,” he says.
Other important aspects of relatability and authenticity are speaking in your own voice and always, always being honest. “Speak in your own voice that is recognized as authentic and not scripted,” suggests Latvis. “Communications experts are wonderful at crafting effective messaging, but if it doesn’t sound like something that a person would normally say, credibility can be lost. When folks feel that you are being honest with them, whether they agree with the message or not, it’s accepted much better. If you aren’t transparent in your communication, you leave room for speculation and suspicion.”
The final key to relatability is accessibility. “You have to make yourself accessible. I’m a realist – I understand the email box is filling up left and right, you’ve got your financial statements you need to look over, and you have your business priorities you need to track down. But you have to make yourself accessible, so people see you as somebody that is really invested in them and their job experience.”
Maintain an Employee-First Mentality
Customer experience is top of mind for today’s service organizations, but Latvis suggests you keep in mind that engaged employees are required for a positive customer experience. Therefore, it is important as a leader to maintain an employee-first mentality and to work tirelessly to ensure your employees are engaged and satisfied. “Companies can easily fall into a trap of overlooking employee satisfaction. The perception is often ‘you’re paid to do your job, so just do your job.’ Too much emphasis is put on the extrinsic motivation or compensation — and companies feel the techs should be happy just with what they’re getting paid. Not enough effort is put into empathy, the appreciation of the skill it takes to do their job, and focus on the mutual purpose that you serve,” says Latvis. “We all serve the customer, and from what I’ve seen, when technicians see that the senior leadership is engaged at that level, they know that their going the extra mile makes a difference. Rather than the mindset of ‘Hey, you’re getting paid well. Just do your job,’ it should be, ‘I care about you as a human being, and I want you to be successful.’”
Investing in one-on-ones is a great way to keep employees connected and engaged. “It shows that the leader is engaged in that employee’s continued development, whether that’s into leadership, to make them more technically astute or competent, increasing their financial acumen, or making them a more marketable employee. Having an individual development plan increases employee engagement and shows that the company is invested in the employee’s future. Time put into one-on-ones is a demonstration that you want your employees to build a long-term career with you. The secondary benefit is that it also allows the identification of talent for succession planning.”
Keep in mind that one-on-ones aren’t always possible or practical. While they are a great goal to strive for, the most important thing is to ensure you are staying engaged with your workforce. “The field service workforce is evolving into a more real-time, virtual environment. This means you can leverage tools like message boards, group text, chat, email and SharePoint to stay connected and augment your face-to-face interactions.”
Take an Active Approach in Managing Change
In a time of great change, much responsibility falls on field service leaders to ensure employees remain informed, comfortable, and confident. Change naturally causes an anxious response, and a good leader can act as a calming force in the face of change. According to Latvis, transparency is the golden rule. “Transparency is the key. Be honest with your workforce. Explaining the ‘why’ behind the change is essential. Without ample explanation, folks will be left to guesswork which leads to increased stress around the change as well as assumptions and conclusions that aren’t always accurate.”
As you’re communicating around change, keep these tips in mind. “Ensure your team knows that you understand that change can be difficult – show empathy and not intolerance. Always emphasize the ways in which this change will help the employees you’re communicating it to – they will be more receptive to change that will impact them personally in a positive manner. And keep your communications short and sweet – don’t overwhelm people with too much dialogue,” suggests Latvis.
Involving your employees in projects from the beginning is important in promoting acceptance. “It has been my experience that pulling employees into the process has a tremendous upside. For instance, holding focus groups or feedback sessions to solicit how to best approach a change to the business are excellent tools to not only gather valuable input but to help obtain buy-in early on. There is great credibility that is available when you share that employees had feedback into the change,” says Latvis.
If you choose to involve your employees, which you should, it is imperative that you make sure they feel their input and feedback is valued. “You have to be sure employee feedback is acted upon. Keep an action item list and, as questions come up, documented them along with who owns the follow-up and the date by which you’ll close the loop,” says Latvis. “This process ensures you maintain credibility. Whether it’s an answer people want to hear or not, commit to following through and your employees respect that. If you ask for feedback and don’t follow through, the next time you find the room shuts down. When you really need their feedback, people will think, ‘Why bother? Nobody’s listening anyway.’”