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Why Do We Abandon Frontline Leaders?

Published Tue Mar 26 2019

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Perhaps you’ve seen the latest memes making the rounds on social media, pitting the money-focused CFO against the people-focused CEO. They tend to go something like this:

CFO: What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us?

CEO: What happens if we don’t and they stay?

The exchange got me thinking about the sort of investments CFOs are asked to make in people—technical education, behavioral training, and, of course, leadership skill development—and where they commonly spend the most money. Chief Learning Officer board data indicates that most investments are made at the senior level for succession planning and high-potential development, which I understood. That was until I realized the leadership level receiving some of the smallest allocation of development dollars is the one populated by the leaders leading the most people—frontline leaders. In fact, 80 percent of a company’s employee population is led by frontline leaders.

Yet, this cadre of leaders are not getting much developmental focus. As Victor Lipman writes in his Harvard Business Review article, “As I neared the end of my corporate days, I realized I’d received much more management training in the last five years than I did in the first 20 years—when I really needed it.”

All this musing led me to these questions: What do frontline leaders need in terms of development, and how would they like to be developed? What do frontline leaders need for their development?

To answer this, we looked back at our Global Leadership Forecast research data. From this analysis, there were four obvious opportunities for frontline leader skill development:

  1. Leading with digitization. Technology is not going away and will only become an increasingly critical part of organizational growth—in both efficiency and profit. Demonstrating a comfortable understanding of technology-centered opportunities, challenges, and consequences is essential for frontline leaders because they need to be confident with technology so they can support their team in using it on the job.

  2. Leading virtual teams. While development is increasingly offered on this topic, it is one of the least effective areas of frontline leaders today. Frontline leaders must be able to use appropriate technology and tools, as well as interpersonal styles, to guide and motivate remote teams. I am regularly asked by leaders how to coach via voicemail, give feedback over WhatsApp, or manage conflict across three geographic regions. We should not expect frontline leaders to “trial and error” through such challenges on their own. Instead, we need to give them guidance and methods to assist them in successfully leading virtual teams.

  3. 360-degree thinking and driving transformation. No one can predict what the next phase of corporate change will be, but frontline leaders can be developed to identify and understand problems or opportunities, use data and technology to form holistic perspectives, and choose the best course of action. Some frontline leaders have a natural ability to think broadly and make good decisions when driving change—but companies too often leave this to chance and fail to develop leaders in this crucial area.

  4. Leveraging diversity and cultural curiosity. Diversity is more than just hitting quotas; it’s also about helping a company thrive through diverse perspectives and passions. This is all the more possible if frontline leaders have been given the skills to effectively seek out experiences to learn more about people from other cultures and backgrounds, and develop a sensitivity, as well as appreciation, for cultural cues that drive individual behavior.

Knowing what frontline leaders need, the next step is knowing how they want to be developed. Read my full article to learn what our research showed about how frontline leaders want to develop their skills.

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