The Problem with Front-line Management

The Problem with Front-line Management

By Vince Molinaro, Managing Director, Leadership Solutions and Catharine Larkin, Director, MICA Learning

It’s a problem that everyone seems to know about, but no one seems to know how to solve. 

In 2010, McKinsey & Company released a survey on front-line management that asked organizations about the performance of managers who worked in closest proximity to employees and customers, and the results were quite surprising.

More than 70 per cent of senior executives and board directors surveyed were unhappy with the performance of front-line management. However, the most startling result was that front-line managers themselves were even more displeased with the state of affairs; a remarkable 81 per cent of front-line management respondents were not satisfied with their own performance. 

At first blush, it’s hard to reconcile a situation where both from above and below, everyone acknowledges there is a problem but does very little to remedy it. Unfortunately, across a wide array of organizations, industries and sectors, it’s the same story: leadership development and training is focused heavily on the top of house, the senior executive levels, while middle and lower management levels go wanting.

The consequences of this dynamic are clear. Ineffective front-line leadership can erode employee engagement and is a major contributing factor to losses in organizational performance and productivity. The absence of support and training for front-line managers can also cripple efforts to retain top talent. Your best young managers, the people you may be counting on to fill key executive roles, may not hang around to work in an organization that provides no support or training opportunities.

With stakes like that, why would any organization ignore the support and development of front-line managers?

In many organizations, front-line managers are performing many of, if not all, the same tasks as the employees they are supervising. In these organizations, front-line managers are extremely constrained by a strict set of tasks and responsibilities. Line managers typically suffocate under the weight of administrative tasks, while being totally discouraged from doing anything more than just responding to problems. Thus, there is little time or motivation for managers to figure out ways of avoiding problems before they occur, or innovating.

Another problem is the lack of attention paid to the type of people who are being promoted into front-line management positions. Many organizations have a tradition of promoting strong technical performers into management positions. However, having great technical skills does not necessarily prepare someone to become a manager. This problem is exacerbated when that new manager is given an array of new tasks without the training and support necessary to handle them.

Remedying the situation is, thankfully, not as difficult as many organizations may think. Keep in mind several important principles when developing a front-line management strategy:

  • Don’t allow your organization to focus solely on high potentials or senior management levels. Leadership training must reflect leadership needs from top to the front line. This will align front-line management with the senior levels. And that will produce a more effective organization.
  • Provide fundamental management skills training at all levels of management. Remember that a rapidly rising, recently promoted front-line manager may simply not have the tools to manage even a small group of your employees. Don’t just toss your best people into the deep end and expect them to swim.
  • Don’t keep your front-line managers on a short leash. Encourage, rather than discourage, front-line managers to innovate and find ways of delivering better service to your customers. Remember that these managers, as close as they are to the delivery of whatever good or service your providing, are a valuable resource when it comes to customer needs and trends.

The great news is that delivering training to your front-line managers can be quite simple and can be achieved using multiple methods including:

  • in-house training development,
  • pre-recorded & live online webinars,
  • group workshops,
  • job training,
  • job rotations,
  • coaching,
  • assessment feedback, and
  • mentoring programs.

The leadership capacity of front-line management is as important to an organization as leadership capacity at senior levels. It is not possible to boost organizational performance by focusing only on the senior levels. Always keep an eye on those people who are closest to your employees and your customers, and let them know they are an essential element in leadership capacity in your organization.

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