Frontline managers should focus on coaching their employees to constantly improve performance.
Line managers direct as much as two-thirds of the workforce and are responsible for the part of the company that typically interacts with and defines the customer experience. In a majority of the companies I’ve encountered, the frontline managers’ role is in a capacity of relaying information from the top to workers; these managers keep an eye on things, enforce plans and policies, report operational results, and quickly escalate issues or problems. In other words, a frontline manager is meant to communicate decisions, not to make them; to ensure compliance with policies, not to use judgment or discretion. Their role is certainly not to develop policies or to oversee the implementation of improvements.
This system makes companies less productive, less agile, and less profitable. Change is possible; the key is a shift to frontline managers who have the time—and the ability—to address the unique circumstances of their specific areas; to foresee trouble and stem it before it begins; and to encourage team members to seek out opportunities for improvement.
Change at the front line
To unlock a team’s abilities, a manager at any level must spend a significant amount of time on two activities:
1. Helping the team understand the company’s direction and its implications for team members.
2. Coaching for performance.
Little of either occurs on the front line in many businesses. Frontline managers spend the majority of their time on administrative work and meetings. They spend far too little time actually managing frontline employees by, coaching them directly.
Even then, managers often aren’t truly coaching the front line. Much of the time they spend with frontline employees is involved auditing for compliance with standards or solving immediate problems (fire-fighting).
These systems are rooted in the early days of the industrial revolution, when manufacturing work was broken down into highly specialized, repetitive, and easily observed tasks. No one worker created a whole product; each did his task in the same place and the same way every time, maximizing effectiveness and efficiency. Employees didn’t necessarily understand the overall job in which they participated. Supervisors were usually people good at the work itself, employed to enforce detailed standards and policies, serving as conduit between workers and policy makers. Many manufacturing companies still use this approach, because it can deliver high-quality results on the front line, at least in the short term.
Attention to execution is important, but an exclusive focus on it can have insidious long-term effects. Such a preoccupation leaves no time for efforts to deal with new demands such as, higher production or quality, let alone for looking at the big picture. The result is a working environment with little flexibility, little encouragement to make improvements, and an increased risk of low morale among both workers and their managers.
Companies must fundamentally redefine what they expect from frontline managers and redesign the work that those managers and their subordinates do.
Changing the mind-sets and capabilities of individual frontline managers can be the hardest part. In my experience, many of them see limits to how much they can accomplish; some also recognize the need to restructure their roles but nonetheless fear change. The first step is to help frontline managers understand the need for change and how it could make things better.
The key is to help frontline managers become true leaders, with the time, the skills, and the desire to help workers understand the company’s direction and its implications for themselves, as well as to coach them individually. Such mangers should have enough time to think ahead, to uncover and solve long-term problems, and to plan for potential new demands.
A supervisor I met at a business that had empowered its team members gave perhaps the clearest description of the way frontline leaders ought to think: “I am a valued member of this company, I have responsibility to make sure my team has the right coaching to improve performance while contributing to the overall functioning and success of our operation.”
Leadership coaching is a learned skill; not something you are born with!