Executives are coached. Middle managers are developed. Frontline managers and supervisors are often forgotten, even though they are responsible for the successful execution of strategy on a daily basis.
— By Belinda Jones
A good business strategy is only successful if it is properly executed on a day-to-day basis. Upper and middle managers develop and monitor strategies, but the frontline managers and supervisors are the ones making it possible for the company to meet goals.
Frontline managers are usually people who excelled as staff members and showed leadership quality. They are promoted from within or hired as first-time supervisors and often put in sink-or-swim situations. They get little training or few development opportunities because their hiring managers are telling themselves the person was hired because he or she already has the right leadership potential. Otherwise, the person would not have been hired in the first place. This circular thinking obstructs development opportunities.
There is growing realization that skilled frontline managers have never been more important to competitive success, so they are developing unique approaches to improving their performance and competencies.
Span Breaking Leaders
People assume supervisory or frontline management positions are skilled and competent in many ways, but many have only exercised informal power or leadership skills. It is common practice to hire people as frontline managers and then let them prove their abilities. Coaching, mentoring and development opportunities are awarded to people in higher positions.
Think of people like the manufacturing line supervisor or the accounts payable supervisor. The first determines whether the company meets production schedules or quality control goals, while the latter person has a significant impact on corporate expenses through cash flow and discounts taken. They must be able to lead, engage staff, meet goals, adhere to corporate policies and manage people.
McKinsey described most frontline managers as being the "span breaking" positions, relaying information from upper management to staff, enforcing compliance to policies and procedures, and quickly transmitting information when there are problems. Typically, they are not viewed as people who must make decisions, use judgment or innovate.
Maintaining competitive status requires everyone performing at their highest level. Frontline supervisors should make decisions and innovate, and they should be empowered to perform. When they do not exercise decision-making or do not contribute new ideas, the company is less agile and misses out on innovation that can flow from a deep understanding of day-to-day operations. The result is a company that is probably less profitable.
As business leaders realize there is a gap in leadership at the lower levels of management, they are coming up with new ways to develop and engage the people who make things happen. They are realizing that frontline managers and new supervisors are not just compliance officers.
Looking for Measurable Outcomes
One of the changes in development strategies is moving from commonly used eLearning solutions to adapted outcomes-based solutions that are similar to the measurable, outcomes-based solutions used to assess higher-level managers. Learning is delivered in different modes that include internal programs and external networking.
Internal modes include on-demand units of curated content, videos, and training articles and blogs. The idea is to deliver content as short bits of information so that frontline managers can access development opportunities that fit busy schedules. Instead of formal classroom training, supervisors are assigned real-world problems. Progress is tracked, and feedback is provided. It is a form of mentoring designed for people who do not have a lot of time.
External modes of learning include giving supervisors opportunities to network with community organizations and others. This enables the frontline manager to connect the job responsibilities and company mission to the people the company serves in the marketplace. This addresses the potential disconnect between the day-to-day operations and impact.
Development of frontline managers also focuses on helping them learn to manage people rather than just getting the job done. Learning to empower other people is especially challenging for first-time supervisors who, up until their new position, had only had to excel in their particular jobs.
Working with co-workers is different than leading a team of staff members. In some cases, frontline supervisors get their jobs through promotions, putting them in the awkward position of supervising peers. Establishing boundaries is another important lesson for first-time supervisors.
Measure Leadership Development Progress
Three basic elements of frontline manager development are incorporated in an effective development model. They are learning, developing and activating.
The Korn Ferry leadership training program blends online modules with face-to-face elements. It uses tools like videos accessible 27/7, virtual instructor-led training, online peer coaching groups, online diagnostics, and a "Styles and Climate" app.
A common feature of today's development models is that managers or supervisors can learn at their own pace. An effective development program blends goal setting, experiential learning, accessible learning content and regular feedback.
Measuring outcomes is important. Common measurement tools include the 360-degree feedback, Myers Briggs, and various leadership assessment tools that measure outcomes based on goals and desired behaviors. The important point to keep in mind is that the assessment tool should measure development and not only job performance. Measuring performance outcomes, like with the DiSC assessment tool, does not indicate whether the new manager or supervisor is improving leadership abilities, like decision-making that contributes to corporate success or how well the person can make use of data analytics or build engaged teams.
Many corporations focus on developing executives and the next levels of senior and mid managers, but stop short of developing frontline managers. Assuming a person who is promoted or hired into a supervisory position already knows how to effectively manage is making a big assumption. The person may have the right competencies or potential, but putting them into practice in a way that contributes to business success usually requires leadership development.
Do not forget the people who are responsible for executing the strategies and meeting goals when it comes to providing development opportunities.