How to manage from ‘the trenches’

February 24, 2014, 9:23 PM UTC

FORTUNE – What has defined much of my career is a line from the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

In my early days at Proctor & Gamble (PG), I was taught if you want people to appreciate and buy your products and services, you need to look at the world through their eyes. That doesn’t mean just using products yourself. It means understanding the process of how your company takes a concept and transforms it into a tangible, marketable entity. What many people overlook is taking the time to understand the role employees and team members play in making those concepts come to life.

There have been countless misfires in product and service launches we’ve all either read about or personally experienced as consumers. Some have been inevitable. Some, however, you have to wonder.

Recall, Lululemon’s recent see-through yoga pants debacle; the upscale yogawear brand last year issued a recall after receiving complaints that the material was too thin. Co-founder, Chip Wilson, acknowledged there was a design issue, but embarrassingly went on to say that “… quite frankly some women’s bodies just actually don’t work for (our pants).” His comments were not only insensitive, but they also alienated a significant customer base, created a public relations disaster and ultimately resulted in Wilson stepping down as chairman.

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What’s interesting is that Wilson was inspired to create Lululemon (LULU) after attending yoga classes. Imagine if Wilson had applied the same motivation to learning more about whom all of his patrons were and to hearing firsthand their feedback as he did in developing his company? I suspect the outcome would have been vastly different.

I have been an executive at several companies, and at each of these, I spent time learning about and experiencing life “in the trenches.” Not only did it open my eyes to creative approaches and unforeseen successes, but quite frankly, it was fun and enlightening.

At KFC International as well as Taco Bell (YUM), I worked the line for several weeks. This experience made me appreciate how a “simple” idea at HQ could turn into an operational mess in the real world. Marketers have a natural tendency to want to create news by adding new products. But if you’re the restaurant manager having to deal with more and more complexity, it makes it that much tougher to deliver consistently great customer service. That led to a personal insight that for every new item that goes on a menu, something needs to come off. And I’ve applied that principle numerous times since.

At H&R Block (HRB), I started taking classes last August to become a tax professional and finished my final exam in November. The classes were tougher than I expected. Some of the classes were harder than any class I took in business school! Even though I am responsible for all of the retail operations in the United States, 10,000 offices including 1,750 franchisees, I took the time to attend the regular classes at night with the other aspiring tax pros. I wanted to get the same training and to participate with everyone else.

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Experiencing the world through the eyes and feet of your employees is invaluable. The lessons that I learned included:

  • Reality Check – First-hand experience makes you smarter about how companies are really coming across to clients. This personal learning will enhance how you approach critical initiatives such as training and new product rollouts. There is often a huge gap between what was originally intended by the team that put these programs together vs. the reality of what it’s like when implemented. This is something you can’t read in a report. You’ve got to experience it in person and feel it in your gut on whether it’s working or not.
  • Credibility – There is no better route to enhance your credibility with the people on your teams than “walking a mile in their shoes.” With our Tax Pros at H&R Block, I went from just another “suit” with an MBA to being “one of them,” which in turn freed them to give me honest and practical feedback on the business we were building together.
  • Insights – You ask smarter questions, get better answers, and in the end, stay better connected to employees and customers from the insights you gain by experiencing the world through their eyes. This creates more opportunity to successfully innovate and extend a product, a service, or a brand in ways that is credible and effective.

So whenever I get into a new role or new business challenge, I remember the power of seeing the world through my business partner’s eye. Without fail, I am always pleasantly surprised how powerful the results can be when you do this.

Kip Knight is president of U.S. retail operations at H&R Block.