When I first heard the phrase “front-line leader,” I was struck with an image of a fierce general leading their troops through the muck unto a victorious tomorrow. When I learned more about this level of leadership, I found that these unique leaders work each day to make their way through the cloud of indecision, misdirection, and inevitable complaining.
They are the conduit between the working and the talking, and they fight a war that wages its success on the input of the day-to-day and the allure of long-term goals. Front-line leaders provide support, vision, insight, and wisdom to those who work for them and for those to whom they report.
Unfortunately, they vary rarely get the support they need to maximize the opportunity to enact change.
Let’s bottom line it: Effective front-line leadership is essential to building organizational success. Front-line leaders are the first to fill in when people don’t show and the first who must take responsibility when things don’t go to plan. And yet they are the leaders who don’t get to go to the three-day conferences. They are the leaders who we forget when we are rolling out employee wellness—and the leaders who struggle with managing the day-to-day, whether it is remote or face-to-face.
So how do we change that situation? How do we provide a leadership training solution that both works with the daily practice and is a feasible addition to the working day?
Consider this case study
Working with a manufacturing company in the Southeast, I was tasked with creating “leadership training.” The vague nature of the request worked in my favor; it gave me license to create a plan of attack that reflected a toolkit-focused approach. The training needed to be practical, easy to implement, and supported both in and out of the training room.
Step 1: Figure out who leads what
Typically, leadership works in layers of hierarchy, with roles and responsibilities that may take a bit of digging to work your way through. In this organization, there were three primary groups that needed three separate leadership programs.
- Supervisors managed the production lines and day-to-day activities and were the first call for any human resources issues.
- Managers managed the supervisors and facilitated the flow between what was happening on the floor and what upper leadership needed to report to the C-suite.
- Directors and vice presidents (the distinction was loosely defined) were sporadic in their responsibilities.
Looking at what each level needed, what each did, and their openness to training, I knew that the greatest impact I could have would be on the supervisors. My plan was to start with them, move to the managers, and then possibly take on the director level. I also made plans to ultimately support line leads and trainers, but all that would be many steps in the future.
Step 2: Outline needs, wants, and responsibilities
This may sound revolutionary but to better understand what the front-line leaders needed, I spoke to them. I shadowed them and chatted with their direct reports: the line leads. I worked with their managers and even brought in human resources. I spent time in their spaces, on their time schedule, and I listened to their stories. The big picture showed that they needed practical skills and tools they could use on a daily basis to:
- Manage conflict and difficult conversations
- Track employee performance
- Understand how to interpret the data and report it to their managers
- Support human resources and handbook policies
Step 3: Create the plan
As I got to know the front-line leaders, I began to key into who they were as learners. I knew that accessibility, both in delivery and content, would be a primary driver of success. I also knew that their time was limited and they needed a learning experience that worked with their current schedule.
As well, these supervisors weren’t overly enthusiastic about learning through the learning management system (LMS) but still wanted resources at their fingertips. They wanted to talk and relate to other supervisors in our various plants. They had limited time to be off the floor, and they worked 24-hour shifts, so we would have to find time that overlapped between the different shifts. Big thing—they wanted something that required no effort and would work tomorrow.
I started by creating a virtual four-class series. The supervisors all had offices and access to computers. The virtual classes allowed me to connect plants and work with several supervisors at once. Each class included a five-minute overview, a five-minute tool description, and a 20-minute conversation about how we could use the tool. We walked through roadblocks and issues and best practices. We made an impact and commitment plan, and then I scheduled coaching.
The four-class series started with managing conflict and owning difficult conversations. Out of our conversations, we customized a template that introduced the steps of mediation. I emphasized that the language and approach could be customized, but the general process needed to remain the same.
Step 4: Put it into practice
Once the draft was outlined, I supported each supervisor as they put the process into place. This created a one-process approach so both the supervisor and the employee knew what to expect. It also eased data collection, as we measured impact through approach rather than process.
To track employee performance, we learned to use repeatable conferences. In these conferences we asked the same questions, collected the same strain of data, and created a running record that showed tangible employee growth. The questions were aligned with our performance management plan, so it also simplified the annual review process.
Then we had the data class. I brought in managers to help me with this conversation. I wanted to reinforce the daily habit of owning and working from the data, speaking with the team, and keeping track of trends. Using this session to define the how and what of data moved the needle because now they weren’t just reporting numbers—they were understanding numbers.
I followed through with the group through coaching sessions. The 15-minute coaching sessions were scheduled to make sure they had what they needed to succeed—and, perhaps more importantly, they were a way I could connect with these leaders to really understand their world. This helped me check and adjust my curriculum, increase face time with these critical decision-makers, and increase overall buy-in. Their feedback also helped me understand their leaders, teams, and business as a whole.
The last aspect of the program helped support the human resources team and the policies they worked to enforce. Through my research I found that many supervisors were unaware of policies, especially in locations that had been acquired. To bridge the gap, I created a digital HR handbook.
The handbook was accessed through the LMS and SharePoint, which allowed a printing option. In my kickoff meeting I outlined the how and why of each. They saw how each policy was outlined through a video (all two-to-five minutes long) and a printable job aid.
By taking time to walk though through access, we had 84% access rate through the LMS, which incidentally was one of the highest rates of access for any program. Only four supervisors printed their packet, but for those four supervisors having the option to print was huge.
Front-line leaders are your pivotible power partners. They are closest to those doing the work and an essential data source for those managing the processes. They want tangible tools and continued support that fit their environment and needs.
As a learning leader seeking to gain credibility with the business, understanding how the business works and learning its language, I found them to be valuable resources. I found success because I listened. I spent time with them on the floor where they did their work. I gave them one-on-one support. This high-touch approach, coupled with real tools that worked, built the confidence and efficacy of these leaders who are so often left behind.
To learn more about front-line leadership training methods, join me in my session, Essential Strategies for Building Better Front-Line Leaders, part of the Learning Leaders Online Forum March 15–16. Bring your ideas, questions, and strategies!