Giving the Boss a Broom

One airline facing a labor crunch has asked executives to load baggage. The pros and cons of putting executives on the front lines.

Most executives have experience with strategic thinking, managing large teams of people, and making difficult decisions. But now, for at least a short period of time, some executives may gain a new kind of experience: hauling luggage.

An airline in Australia sent out a memo last week asking its managers and executives to volunteer to handle baggage and drive the vehicles that carry luggage between the aircraft and the terminal. Volunteers, who were told to expect to haul bags weighing up to 70 pounds, were asked to commit to working 12 to 18 hours across three shifts each week. The news has experts wondering, with recession-like scenarios now looming, whether executives should be moonlighting in frontline roles.

In many industries, it’s not unusual for executives to roll up their sleeves—in some cases, literally—to help in a crisis. Earlier in his career, Korn Ferry senior client partner Juan Pablo Gonzalez worked for a diversified energy company. After a hurricane struck the area where the firm was located, the head of benefits, a onetime engineer, headed out into the field to fix damaged equipment. Other HR executives went into call centers to communicate with customers. “It was all hands on deck,” Gonzalez says.

But experts worry that deploying executives this way could potentially take away focus from what they are truly paid for—the critical job of devising strategies and plans that determine the success of frontline employees and every other aspect of an organization. Filling takeout orders or tidying up fitting rooms could be seen as nothing more than a stunt. The show “Undercover Boss,” in which a company CEO changes their appearance to work among low-level workers, is appreciated for its entertainment value, not as an example of best-practice management or corporate leadership. “You run the risk of it becoming trite,” says John Long, a senior client partner and North America retail sector leader in Korn Ferry’s Retail and Consumer practices.

Still, firms worldwide are clearly facing shortages in labor. A dearth of available workers has forced restaurants to shorten hours, airlines to cancel flights, and retailers to cut back on services. In the Australian airline’s case, national unemployment is already very low, and Australia’s COVID border policies prevent expatriates who normally could fill roles like baggage handler from entering the country. “So many industries that hire volumes of unskilled workers are struggling at the moment,” says Evan Miller, client director of Korn Ferry’s Recruitment Process Outsourcing business in Australia.

For years, various industries have required executives to get frontline experience. This includes many fast-food companies, which will send recently-hired executives into the field for a short period of time to flip burgers, sweep floors, and anything else required to run a restaurant. “You don’t have any chops in the industry if your restaurant isn’t struggling and you don’t step in,” says Sheila O’Grady, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Consumer practice.

For her part, Alina Polonskaia, a senior client partner and global leader of Korn Ferry’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Consulting practice, says high-level executives can fall out of touch with how rank-and-file employees think and work. “If they need to go work on their front line to get in touch with reality, it’s healthy—as a temporary practice,” she says.