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Frontline Leaders Need Development Too
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
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Frontline employees can make or break an organization. They make the product, face customers, maintain equipment, and handle complaints. To do their jobs well, they need to have direction, competence, opportunity, and motivation—all of which are affected by their supervisors. But there is a problem.

Frontline Managers: Are They Given the Leadership Tools to Succeed?, a special report from Harvard Business Review (HBR) Analytics Services, explains how even though managers are critically important to the organization, they are seriously lacking in leadership skills. In fact, according to HBR’s survey of international business leaders, only 12 percent of respondents thought their organization invested sufficiently in the development of frontline managers.

The reason for lack of frontline leadership development is not surprising. When development funds run short, frontline managers are the ones that have to go without. Consequently, frontline employees—and organizational health—suffer.

Frontline Managers Face Unique Challenges

Whether they come up through the ranks or are hired externally, frontline managers have unique leadership challenges that require support.

For starters, leadership development programs should take into consideration the changing workforce. Indeed, the workforce is changing—both generationally and culturally. According to a recent Pew Research study, Millennials (born between 1980 and 1997) have become the majority population in the workforce. This means that frontline managers must be prepared to lead Millennials.

In addition, many new frontline managers themselves will be Millennials. No longer responsible only for their own performance, their primary role is to direct and manage the performance of others who may have been their peers at some point, or who may be older and more experienced than themselves.

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New frontline leaders also must take a broader view of their own work, as well as the work of the team—taking responsibility for how work affects other departments and the whole organization. As a result, building relationships and fostering collaboration with other managers and departments is a key skill. What’s more, these leaders must be ready to implement strategic initiatives that are handed down from executive team members.

Critical Skills for Frontline Managers

To effectively manage their teams, frontline leaders need development in key skills that will enable them to understand and foster the success of individual employees—who have their own values, motivations, favored working conditions, and learning styles. Here are five critical skills leadership development should focus on.

Business acumen: Frontline leaders would benefit greatly from training about the business. They need to understand its strategic priorities and how their department supports those priorities. By doing so, leaders are equipped to connect their work—and that of their direct reports—to the larger organization, as well as show employees how their work contributes to the organization’s overall success.

Goal alignment and goal setting: Frontline leaders need to know what is important to the organization as a whole, so they can effectively focus their team’s efforts on what matters most—whether it is increasing throughput, reducing complaints, or other issues that will have the largest impact on the business. When frontline managers have defined performance standards and create a limited number of goals aligned to business priorities, they can ensure their employees know what is expected of them and how they will be evaluated.

Goal execution: Once goals are established, frontline managers need to know how to give direction, set milestones, and monitor progress. They must be able to observe when performance is lagging or goals are at risk in a timely manner so they can put in place corrective measures. Of course, they also need to know how to identify the root causes of lagging performance in order to apply the right corrective measures.

Coaching and feedback: Frontline managers are most effective when they understand that their role is not to be the commander but a facilitator, creating the conditions that will set up their teams for success. To accomplish this lofty goal, they need time, training, and practice observing the behavior of employees. They also should be focused on providing employees with ongoing, meaningful feedback, so they can objectively communicate what employees are doing well and what needs improvement. Bottom line: Everyone wants to know that their work matters, be recognized for their efforts, understand what is required of them, and be treated with understanding and respect.

Your Turn

Do you have any useful practices that you or your organization are doing to develop the leadership skills of frontline managers? Please share in the Comments.

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About the Author
Joanne Wells is manager of the Learning Centre of Excellence at Halogen Software. She has more than 20 years of experience in managing, coaching, and mentoring skilled professionals. In her current role, she is responsible for employee skills development and career progression.
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