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ATD Blog

First-Level Leaders Are the Linchpins of Employee Engagement

Thursday, May 9, 2019

FranklinCovey defines first-level leaders as people leading a team of individual contributors who themselves have no direct reports. This first-level leader position has become a linchpin and leverage point in most organizations due to the unprecedented collapsing of management layers. In fact, the vast majority of frontline employees report to this position.

The first-level leader has significant impact on retention, engagement, culture-building, and the execution of corporate strategy. Often promoted from being a highly accomplished individual producer, this first-level leader must model and coach behaviors at a new level of performance (their own and that of their teams).

But a new FranklinCovey study found a dramatic gulf between great and average first-level leaders—and the gap is growing. Simply put, great first-level leaders act differently and as a result are much more likely to achieve positive outcomes and collaboration.

Effective teams require leaders who are adept at building relationships of trust, communication, feedback, candor, coaching, and development. The study revealed that while great first-level leaders consistently nurture these qualities, average first-level leaders struggle.

These and other key findings are from the survey are below:

Receiving and Seeking Feedback

Fifty-five percent of average leaders withhold critical feedback because it’s uncomfortable, compared to 40 percent of great first-level leaders. And 22 percent of average first-level leaders are very comfortable receiving critical feedback, compared to 45 percent of great first-level leaders.

A key leadership competency of effective first-level leaders is understanding the importance of providing and receiving feedback. Before a leader can become effective at providing feedback, they must model the maturity and wisdom to receive feedback. What you model as a leader is what you get from your team.

Let’s face it—to receive feedback, you have to convince others you are open to it, genuinely want it, and are willing to act on it. To quote Todd Davis, FranklinCovey’s chief people officer and author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work, “Leaders need to make it safe for others to tell them the truth.”

Leaders who sincerely want feedback create safe conditions for their peers, boss, and direct reports to share insights about their strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots. Easier written than done, we acknowledge; but if you want your team to become better at receiving feedback, you must model that you’re not just willing but craving any constructive feedback that can make you a better colleague and leader.


There are four points to be mindful of:

1. Make it your brand to consistently and proactively ask people to share feedback with you.

2. Ask questions. Takes notes. Request specific examples so you can clarify when you’re behaving in a particular way, positively or negatively.

3. Do not dispute or dismiss the feedback. Don’t defend yourself. Listen, thank the giver, and think about the feedback. With practice, you’ll learn to decide which feedback is valuable and which is not.

4. Act on the feedback. If you want to make it safe for others to tell you the truth, they have to see that there is no retribution or downside. If they see you noticeably implementing the feedback in your behavior, they’ll be more likely to give feedback in the future and feel comfortable in a high-trust relationship with you. There’s no better feeling in your career than trusting your leader. Conversely, there’s no worse feeling than living in fear and paranoia.

Strategic Focus

Twenty percent of average first-level leaders are very confident they know which tasks matter most, compared to 47 percent of great first-level leaders.


Another competency that highly effective first-level leaders need to master is discerning between important and urgent priorities. Many cultures reward and validate “firefighting,” so we’re tempted to think that’s our most valuable contribution—resolving client concerns, solving late shipments, racing a product to market. Fill in the blank with your company’s daily urgencies. They never end.

If you want to build influence with your team, you need not only to protect them from outside urgencies (within reason), but also realize when you’re creating the urgencies yourself. Oftentimes, the first-level leader creates an urgency-addicted environment because it’s validating. It’s quite easy to respond to urgencies all day long, pinball style.

Ask yourself: Is what I’m telling my team to focus on progressing our most important business objectives and team mission? How are these activities sustaining engagement and releasing the creative potential and talent of our team members? Be mindful of how quickly an urgency-addicted culture will burn out your team members and even encourage them to seek other career options.

Business Results

Thirty percent of average first-level leaders are very confident they can manage a project successfully through to completion, compared to 60 percent of great first-level leaders.

Successful leaders of projects and initiatives have several commonalities—they understand the timeless principle popularized by the famed author Dr. Stephen R. Covey known as “No involvement, no commitment.” Thus they overcommunicate and clarify objectives, responsibilities, and what success looks like. They also balance a need to communicate with the necessity of listening to concerns, realities, obstacles, fears, necessary resources, workloads, and so on. When every member of the project has the same clarity about the outcomes, the likelihood of success increases exponentially. Leaders typically under-communicate vision, process, and expectations by a factor of 10.

This study serves as a clarion call to organizations. Great first-level leaders create teams where customers are delighted, employees are engaged, and their business results are strong. But average leaders deliver only average results—and most organizations can’t afford average results. Customers will simply find the better ones somewhere else.

The good news is that leaders can learn, grow, and hone these vital skills throughout their careers.

About the Author

Entering his 23rd year with the Franklin Covey Company, Scott Miller serves as the chief marketing officer and executive vice president of thought leadership. He is the host of FranklinCovey sponsored On Leadership with Scott Miller — a weekly leadership webcast, podcast and newsletter that features interviews with renowned business titans, authors and thought leaders and is distributed to more than five million business leaders — as well the weekly radio program Great Life, Great Career with Scott Miller on iHeart Media’s KNRS 105.7. This radio program and podcast provides insight and strategies drawn from FranklinCovey’s leadership principles and from Miller’s career and personal life experience to assist listeners in becoming more effective as business leaders and to improve their personal performance.

Miller leads the strategy, development, and publication of FranklinCovey’s bestselling books and thought leadership, which provide the framework for the company’s world-renowned content and solutions. He is the author of FranklinCovey’s upcoming, Management Mess to Leadership Success releasing in June, 2019 (Mango Media). He is also co-authoring Everyone Deserves A Great Manager, The 6 Critical Practices for Leading A Team, scheduled to be released in October 2019 (Simon & Schuster).

In his previous roles as executive vice president of business development and chief marketing officer, Scott led the global transformation of FranklinCovey’s brand and prior to that as general manager of client facilitation services, Miller worked with thousands of clients and client facilitators in numerous markets in over 30 countries. He has presented to hundreds of audiences across every industry and loves to share his own, unique leadership journey, in today’s culture and world that greatly values unfiltered leadership.

Miller joined the Covey Leadership Center in 1996 as a Client Partner with the Education Division, which focused on serving K-12 schools and higher education. He also served as the General Manager of FranklinCovey’s Central Region for six years in Chicago.

Miller began his professional career in 1992 with the Disney Development Company (the real estate development division of the Walt Disney Company) as a founding member of the development team that designed the new town of Celebration, Florida.

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I believe that if people were to utilise 50% of the time they spend on differentiating, they could be twice as productive as they are currently. We have the leadership and the HR department to help supervise this but why should they be the only ones to ensure diversity in the workplace? Contrary to popular belief, employees make the company, its culture, and its values and not the other way round. Check out: peopleHum - the people platform
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I just finished facilitating a new leadership program for new leaders and leaders with no direct reports ... the very people discussed in this article. I'd like to share this article with the group. We have an ongoing discussion board where we will continue to share and learn. Obviously they are not ATD members. Do I have your permission to copy and post your article for them? Will be sure to give you and ATD credit for the article.
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