Leadership development strategies tend to focus on mid-level to senior leaders, often ignoring the higher-level leadership potential of the lowest level, highest impact first-time managers and frontline supervisors.
— By Dave Desouza
Calling an employee a frontline supervisor or manager connotes different things to people. The leader's title can imply inexperience, low-level responsibilities or lack of decision-making authority. The reality is much different. Frontline supervisors and early career managers are overseeing critical employee teams; dealing with millions of customers; allocating millions of dollars in organizational resources; and making daily decisions that impact productivity, brand image and ability to reach goals. If in doubt, consider the companies that had to frantically restore their reputation after a few careless online employee remarks or supervisors who delivered poor customer service.
Yet, leadership development efforts are often weak at the frontline level with resources directed toward higher management levels.
The early career and frontline leaders are the people who can fill in gaps in the leadership pipeline, if the organization directs the appropriate effort and resources into training and developing the people to assume higher level positions.
Sink or Swim
Building a leadership pipeline that carries a regular flow of high performers is challenging, especially in a competitive talent market with a shortage of people who have the required skills.
Though hiring externally can bring in new perspectives and desired competencies, more companies are looking internally for people who can fill leadership pipeline gaps. This strategy has many advantages, including increasing retention of the most productive and qualified talent.
Many of the people in first line manager positions are employees who were promoted due to their ability to produce good results, work with groups of people, and meet goals, all within context of corporate values. Once promoted into supervisor or manager positions, they are often left to swim or sink.
The behaviors and activities that led to prior success and earned them promotions are hard for them to let go. In other words, they have difficulty transitioning from staff to leader. They need training and development to help them understand the new behaviors and skills required of managers, including planning, delegating work, time management, coaching employees, active listening, and communicating with higher level managers.
Unfortunately, people in early career manager positions and frontline supervisors are frequently not offered the appropriate level of development. They need assistance with making the transition in terms of work performed and understanding how their leadership of others, rather than specific work assignments, produces value for the organization.
Investing in the development of frontline leaders can increase organizational productivity, but it also develops people who are most likely to advance up the manager ladder.
Developing them at the earliest stages of leadership not only ensures they have the skills to be successful managers and supervisors; a strong foundation is established for future career advancement. Frontline leaders are one of the best sources of people for filling the leadership pipeline.
Sparking and Igniting Leadership Potential
Making leadership development efforts unique today is that early leader training is designed for a unique workforce that is multi generational, diverse, tech-based and collaborative.
A different set of skills are required compared to the skills needed in the past. Frontline leaders need competency in identifying and capturing innovation, fostering teamwork, understanding and strengthening the organization's values and culture, acting transparently, and developing others. Command-and-control, a style people tend to fall back on when they struggle to manage others, is ineffective in today's workforce.
The 3M Leadership Way model is one unique approach to keeping the leadership pipeline filled. The model has four components: Spark, Ignite, Amplify and Catalyst.
Spark targets the employees who are not yet leaders but want to better understand the leadership opportunities. Ignite is for the early-career leaders who need to develop a new purpose as people who must inspire others. Amplify develops people with experience who are ready to become transformational leaders, and Catalyst develops senior leaders as change agents.
Unfortunately, people in early career manager positions and frontline supervisors are frequently not offered the appropriate level of development.
Half of the components are directed at people who have leadership potential or are early-stage leaders. The 3M leadership development plan places heavy emphasis on experiential learning through collaborative projects, problem-solving opportunities, and participation in community projects to address critical social issues. Other development strategies include job rotations, spot coaching, and using senior leaders as teachers who assess the experiential aspects and engage. Also unique is the inclusion of customers and community leaders in several program phases.
Leadership development in all four components is a continuous learning journey, creating smoother transitions from one leadership level to another.
Keeping up With the Times
3M recognized that a successful leadership pipeline needs a blend of succession planning with the development of leaders at all levels, and long before a position replacement is needed. Many of the current frontline leaders are millennials, and they brought a different style of leadership to their positions.
It is crucial to revamp leadership development programs to build on the unique characteristics of today's workforce.
Younger leaders understand the need of people to perform meaningful work, regularly communicate and socialize, get regular feedback, and have a voice. It is the how of leadership, within the organization's context of values and mission, that development programs should offer.
Sending people off to workshops periodically is no longer an effective approach to cultivating future people to fill future leadership positions. Events move too fast, placing heavy reliance on experiential learning as a development tool.
Various studies have shown that filling a majority of positions with internal leaders creates more than twice the leadership bench strength and four times higher success rates among leaders at all levels.
Offer frontline leaders plenty of opportunities to accelerate development based on their needs. They include experiential learning, simulations, internet-based programs, higher level manager coaching, and collaborative team building opportunities.
To build leadership bench strength, start now with the people who have already proven they have potential.