Front-line leaders: we applaud you
Over the past 10 years, I have had the honor of working with, and meeting some incredibly talented individuals. Of all these individuals, those who constantly stand out to me are the front-line supervisors at every organization we have partnered with. After working with teams at every level in an organization, it is the challenge of the supervisor that astonishes me the most. I felt the need to take a moment to highlight a few important points about them:
- It is of the outmost importance that senior leaders are aware of the challenges their supervisors face on a daily basis (although in most cases, I believe that there is a reasonably good agreement on this);
- Clarify why, in most cases, these challenges exist, and outline some strategies I have focused on to help balance the scales.
Why is the role of the front-line leader so incredibly challenging?
I have boiled this down to a few key elements.
Front-line leaders have an outstanding number of priorities to juggle between the performance of their areas, the training & development of their team, various administrative tasks, being required to conduct work themselves, and constantly respond to the multiple fires around them.
To be honest, just listing all these objectives is enough to make my head spin. Oh, and did I mention that, on top of it all, our studies show that the typical front-line leader spends almost 50% of their time reacting to issues that catch them off guard and pull them away from these priorities?
How a front-line leader does at managing these various priorities has a direct impact on the business and can be clearly seen at all levels. More often than not, they’ll hear about it the second they miss a beat!
Sphere of Influence
Of all the roles in a business, the front-line leader will almost always have the greatest number of direct reports. On average, this represents a ratio of anywhere from 20-30 to 1. In comparison, 2nd and 3rd level leaders are typically closer to a 5:1 ratio. To put that into perspective, we have asked our leaders with the least leadership experience to be directly responsible for the greatest number of people in the business. Furthermore, it is the employees for whom these leaders are responsible that require the greatest leadership of all, since they are the ones who ultimately drive the value of the organization.
In many cases, front-line leaders were strong, hardworking employees that showed commitment to the business, so a promotion was the logical next step. Both the employer and the employee often fail to recognize that in advancing to a leadership position, an employee is being asked to adopt an entirely new set of skills from what was typically required of them. They may have the foundation, but the learning has yet to happen. For anyone who has ever managed another human being, you will agree with me that the learning curve is steep, challenging, and can rarely be overcome through natural ability alone. A front-line leader must navigate this learning curve while managing the aforementioned priorities.
As leaders and organizations, it is our responsibility to ensure that this group of individuals is provided the right tools and support required in order to succeed in this challenging developmental moment in their carreer. Furthermore, it is imperative to ensuring the business is positioned for success, attracts the best talent, and retains that talent.
The 4 S approach
To talk about solutions, let’s use this easy-to-remember acronym called the 4 S approach: Stress, Structure, Support, Success.
First and foremost, stress. I like to commonly refer to the stress/performance curve to show that some stress is okay, but too much stress can be detrimental. On the other hand, not enough stress can also cause issues related to performance of the individual. Managing this sweet spot can be tricky and takes attention to the right indicators in order to manage effectively.
There are clear impacts of this curve taking place on the leader themselves; however, another important consideration is the impact this could have on the 20 or 30 employees who rely on him; for example, studies have shown that the manager’s stress level has an impact on their employees’ physical and mental health. The very first step that must be taken is to align the stress level with peak performance. A few key initiatives senior leadership teams can take to achieve this:
- Communication, Recognition, and Understanding of the sources of the stress. Hold a workshop, a brainstorm, or a questionnaire to better understand and listen closely.
- Build in a support structure. It is easy to temporarily bring stress down through a single meeting but to maintain optimal performance levels consistently, stress must be managed regularly with support; knowing that you have regular and structured support from your managers, coaches, and colleagues will open up the lines of communication.
- Walk the talk, immediately! Bring some quick wins to the table and show your commitment to addressing areas where you can quickly make an impact.
Once we have created an environment that will foster development and performance, , we can examine the technical aspect of what it looks like. Many organizations have answered this call by implementing Leader Standard Work (LSW) which is a well-designed yet still a theoretical image of how a leader’s day/week should play out. This is a great first step into structuring a front-line manager’s time, but it needs to be backed up with the support to achieve it. This support must come from their direct manager and other coaches within the organization who understand the distractions that pull attention away from their LSW.
Lastly, a re-prioritization of activities that will proactively address issues prior to them occurring and thus limit the number of unplanned interruptions to their LSW . As we would say in maintenance, if you want your equipment to stop breaking down unexpectedly, you need to have a better PM (preventive maintenance) program. The same goes for leaders. In order to have fewer unexpected interruptions throughout the day, you must engage in activities that serve to anticipate and fix these in a controlled and planned way. Leadership must build in the time and space for our front-line leaders to engage in these activities and play an active role in helping them to prioritize key events like structured floor tours and performance dialogues with their team.
It is critical to quantify the gains made by the leader in achieving all of the above, including stress. Regularly monitoring the manager’s progress in all three of the above categories is important. Furthermore, the responsibility for these results must be held not only by the leader himself, but also shared by the coaches who support him and his direct superior. In doing so, the burden of development is shared, and a greater overall success is ensured.
To recap on our key points, front-line leaders within each organization face huge challenges. In many cases, these challenges cause performance issues which are translated onto the team and may prevent the operation from reaching its full potential. To ensure the success of front-line managers, as well as the organization’s, these challenges may be addressed by using the 4 S Approach: Stress, Structure, Support, Success.
Front-line managers really are unsung heroes! Let us give them gratitude.