It’s not controversial to say that the front line matters.

Market researchers consistently agree that companies are increasing their investment in developing front-line leaders, i.e., those who directly manage line employees. According to Bersin, companies tripled investment from 2009 to 2012. (See References at the end of this article.) According to Training Magazine, “Management/Supervisory Training” led the pack for how many companies plan to increase investment out of ten content areas they track.

And research shows that improving the performance of front-line leaders really does make a difference. According to the Leadership Development Roundtable of the Corporate Executive Board, “Shifting an effective manager to an effective people manager can improve employee performance by 25%, employee engagement by 29% and employee retention by 40%.”

At Kineo, we’ve been spending time recently talking with companies about how they develop front-line leaders. Many are telling us that they wish they had a better way. In particular, they seem concerned about transfer. How can they ensure that front-line leaders actually apply what they learn in training back to their jobs?

Everyone hopes they can get better at training their managers. But as renowned Army General Gordon R. Sullivan once said, “Hope is not a method.” Perhaps we should adopt this more action-oriented version of it from General Carl Vuono: “Don’t tell me what you hope will happen, don’t tell me what you wish you could do. Give me a plan that makes it happen.”

When it comes to ensuring that front-line leaders actually apply on the job the skills we address in training, does your company “have a plan that makes it happen”?

Hope is not a method

When we create a training program for any group, front-line leaders included, it’s all too easy to put all of our focus on the learning intervention itself and not pay enough attention to the larger context it will be used in. After all, we can readily control the intervention. But getting other people to do their parts feels less in our control. How can we in L&D impact what happens on the job? Isn’t that something that the business must drive?

The result can often be characterized as, “We put people through great training … and then hope they put it to use.”

Research from Forum shows the flaw in that approach. As Forum reports, “[Our] data support Robert Brinkerhoff’s 40/20/40 rule: Aligning and Sustaining make a much greater impact on learning than does simply Equipping learners with the skills to make a change.”

A source of inspiration

When thinking through a hard problem, it can help to borrow ideas from how someone else has solved a similar problem.

Over the past few years, I’ve become impressed with how often physical therapy (PT) just works. I noticed when I went through PT, that my experience differed in some important ways from a typical front-line leader development program. Here are the key differences I saw … and the questions they raised for me about how we design front-line leader programs to “bake in” transfer.

1. Physical Therapy is something you *do*

I went to PT to loosen up a frozen rotator cuff. Across my six weeks of sessions, at 50 minutes each week, I spent a total of perhaps three minutes learning about shoulder anatomy (i.e., maybe 1% of my time learning about concepts and models).

I spent the vast majority of my time learning drills that I was to perform later at home. In short, my experience was mostly organized around preparing me, in a very nuts and bolts way, to practice back home.

How much time does your front-line leader development program allocate to educating front-line leaders “about” leadership concepts. Should we instead keep a laser focus on what front-line leaders should practice back on the job? What are the four steps to take when coaching a team member? What are the three questions to ask before you try to get a disaffected employee re-engaged?

2. Results are visible … week by week

I landed in therapy because my shoulder gradually tightened up. I had tweaked it months before, so I thought I should lay off of it. Looking back, week-by-week, I could move it less and less … but this changed so gradually I never noticed. Then, one day, I needed someone to help me put on my coat and thought, “Huh, that’s just not right!”

Once in PT, it suddenly became crystal clear where I stood. My therapist had a simple angle measure that showed just how flexible my shoulder was. Every week, we started with the measure. So, every week, we could see how I was doing. Something that had been invisible to me was now clear.

In your company’s front-line leader development program, do front-line leaders get a clear view of their capabilities? Do they get a clear view of how their capabilities grow as they work on them? Should we provide skills assessments that give front-line leaders a clear view based on their demonstrated performance? In fact, should we move these to the front-and-center, just as each week, my PT session started with taking my measure?

3. The real work happens back home

From the moment I walked into PT, the clearly stated assumption was that if I was going to get better, it was because I convinced myself to do some uncomfortable work several times each day back home. My weekly PT session would give me the right homework. So, each week, my therapist, the woman I called my “Mistress of Misery,” would first review my progress and then give me a new routine based on where I had reached.

In your company’s front-line leader development program, is the presumption that the actual development happens on the job? Or is it that “Well, they went to training so now they must be trained! Great, let’s get back to work.” Should we reposition our programs so that all involved think of “training” only as laying the groundwork for the important work … back on the job?

4. The homework is simple and bite-sized

Each PT session, the therapist gave me homework. “Spend 10 minutes three times a day to do each of these five exercises. Ten reps for each exercise.” The homework was never daunting and never very time-consuming.

Some front-line leader programs are designed around the notion we can only get access to front-line leaders for one chunk of a few days. So, we use those days to dump as much as we can on them. When we insert action learning, it’s often in the form of dauntingly large action projects. Should we instead use our initial time with front-line leaders to cover fewer things more deeply with the idea that we will then feed bite-sized development activities to participants step-by-step over time?

5. I had individual attention from a therapist over a span of time

As I went through PT, I scheduled time with my therapist. Each week, we had fifty minutes in which we focused just on where I was and what I needed to do next.

Too often, front-line leader programs do not provide individualized attention. Who plays the “therapist” role for a new front-line leader? Most companies promote the philosophy that a front-line leader’s development is the joint responsibility of the front-line leader and her manager. But we hear from many companies that they worry that the managers-of-front-line leaders neither take sufficient time to develop their front-line leaders nor have the skills to do so effectively. Should we figure out how to create “development journeys” that routinely incorporate managers-of-front-line leaders into their front-line leaders development over a span of time?

6. The therapist had a toolkit

When I was in PT, doing the “homework” was, mechanically, what caused my recovery. How hard was it for my “Mistress of Misery” to assign it? Not very. Each week after measuring my progress, she would go to a computer and print out a series of drawings that had all the polish of line drawings from a 1950s army manual. Maybe not glitzy, but it worked. The therapist did not need to invent new approaches for me or think hard about how to help me. Based on my progress, she identified the next exercises in what I imagine was a predefined path, printed them, and then coached me in how to actually do them.

In short, each week, my therapist did three basic things: 1. Measure progress (using a simple tool); 2. Identify homework; and 3. Coach me how to do that homework.

As far as I was concerned, these interactions represented my “moment of truth” with my PT. Too often, when front-line leader programs ask managers-of-front-line-leaders to coach and guide their front-line leaders, they do not clearly lay out what moments of truth are expected nor give those managers the tools they need. Should we provide managers-of-front-line-leaders the equivalent of the toolkit my therapist had?

The bottom line

Would it make a difference to move to a model for front-line leader development like the model used by my physical therapist for physical improvement? The data seems to say “Yes!” According to the Conference Board, “Organizations that report their leaders practice and then receive feedback on key skills with their managers are five times more likely to have high leader quality.”

Will it play in Peoria?

The differences I’ve noted above between how PT works and how many companies develop their front-line leaders seem intriguing and meaningful. But that doesn’t mean that making a shift is easy.

Clearly, the PT model revolves around the therapist. That is, around a highly trained professional who is dedicated to doing this work. Who is not plagued by other responsibilities. Oh, and who gets paid for it.

Is it realistic to think that companies can adopt these ideas for front-line leader development? Typically managers-of-front-line-leaders are not highly trained on how to create behavior change. They face a bewildering variety of competing demands on their time. And their annual reviews usually do not weigh heavily on their success at developing their front-line leaders.

Hmmm. Maybe it will not be so easy. But maybe also we can change that equation.

I spoke to one manager of leadership development who ran a front-line leader program that worked more-or-less like my PT experience. His leadership development team provided classes that exposed front-line leaders to how to perform key tasks. Those classes were seen only as an introduction. Then, front-line leaders worked with their managers over the next year to practice, using as their tools rubrics and brief guides provided by the leadership development team. Worked great! Why? The CEO bought into it.

Now, what CEO wouldn’t want to better develop their front-line leaders? That is, if the CEO could actually see the results … and not just hope that results would come. Similarly, what business leader wouldn’t want such results?

Maybe we need to add an extra element to the mix if we want to organize front-line leader development to use the PT model. Should we give business leaders a way to see the impact they are making and hold each other accountable for doing the work? While evaluation is always important, should we provide a clear scorecard that shows results across levels and across business units?

What is your “plan that makes it happen”?

Do you believe that your front-line leaders would develop faster if your company could give them the kind of attention that I received in PT? Do you believe that the hill is worth the climb, and that it’s worth investing to drive that kind of attention? If so, how might you make progress? Which of the six ideas mentioned here would you choose to work on?


O’Leonard, Karen, and Kim Lamoureux. Leadership Development Factbook 2009: Benchmarks and Analysis of Leadership Development Spending, Staffing, and Programs. Bersin & Associates, 2009.

O’Leonard, Karen, and Laci (Barb) Loew. Leadership Development Factbook 2012: Benchmarks and Trends in U.S. Leadership Development. Bersin & Associates, 2012.

Training Magazine. “2014 Training Industry Report.” Oct/Nov 2014. (

CEB HR Leadership Council for Mid-Sized Companies. “Enabling Managers to Drive Employee Development: Creating a Performance-Focused Organization.” 2011.

The Forum Corporation. “The Behavior Change Handbook.” 2012.