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How to Make Frontline Leaders More Strategic

by Bruce Court

Strategic Leadership at the Front LineChange is the new normal, and it’s probably most visible and has the most impact within the workplace. What is a surprise to me is that in many instances when something new is being implemented by an organization, the frontline leader is seen as nothing more than a messenger of change.

To effectively implement any strategic initiative, the frontline leaders need to be fully engaged. Why? In most organizations the frontline leaders account for 50-60 percent of a company’s leadership and directly supervise as much as 80 percent of the workforce. How successful can any initiative be if such a large percentage of the workforce is not fully on board and engaged with the confidence and competence to do what’s required?

Not only that, but the C-suite and the board are expecting to see results sooner rather than later. How can organizations increase their likelihood of having a successful outcome? The clock is ticking!

As you would expect, there is no one right answer to this situation. The results will come from a variety of sources; here are just a few that separately and together have been shown to make a difference.

Firstly, there is a need to acknowledge that there are only so many minutes in a day. In an eight-hour day, it’s 480 minutes. What portion of those precious 480 minutes should a frontline leader spend doing what they need to do every day? They’re leading through coaching, providing feedback, motivating, and engaging the people who are required to make it all happen. How much time will they be able to spend on the strategic initiatives? Of course, it will vary by organization, their role in executing the strategy, and what the team needs.

Based on five decades of experience in the science and practice of leadership, DDI has determined that there are some core skills that every leader needs to use effectively in their everyday interactions. They include:

  • Building and employing emotional intelligence
  • Engaging in active and authentic listening
  • Conducting purposeful conversations
  • Having successful coaching discussions
  • Adopting a growth mindset
  • Building relationships
  • Asking questions
  • Promoting a coaching culture

Whatever the portion of the day the frontline leader spends executing the strategy without being competent and confident in their ability to use these core skills, they are probably putting the outcome of strategy at risk!

In addition to putting a strategic initiative at risk because the frontline leaders can’t or won’t apply the core skills listed above, companies frequently forget to ask a crucial question: Are our leaders equipped to meet the challenges that are coming over the horizon?

Many companies view strategy execution within a two-year cycle. That’s equates to 480 working days to accomplish their strategic goals. To increase the likelihood of meeting this timeline, leaders not only need the core skills, they also need the skills required to execute the strategic priorities, early in strategic cycle, to stand a chance of delivering the desired results.

When it comes to strategy execution these are some of typical challenges frontline leaders are being asked to tackle:

Drive organizational change

Change is continuous, and most companies are working hard to keep up. But changing old habits is hard, and leaders need to be prepared to help their teams adjust and embrace new approaches.

Create a coaching culture

Coaching is one of the most effective approaches to upgrade employees' skills and elevate individual performance, particularly during periods of rapid change. Creating the right environment and developing the right skills in both the coach and coached are essential to success.

Embrace diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion is a hot-button issue in many organizations, particularly because a diverse and inclusive environment is proven to drive higher profitability and greater innovation. Too often, companies set goals for diversity without equipping leaders with the skills to address underlying issues.

Build a high-performance culture

Driving company growth and profitability depends on every employee performing at their peak levels. This is important because when you have a culture of outstanding performance, it’s easier to attract and retain top talent, improve morale, and drive bottom-line performance.

When you combine the development of core skills with development in the specific skills required at the front line to carry out strategic initiatives like the ones identified above, you are significantly increasing the likelihood of achieving the company’s goals and realizing better business results within the expected timeline.

Whatever the strategy, there are three ingredients that together enable frontline leaders to execute a strategy.

1. Focus: Putting critical priorities first

When both the leader and the team are focused, they consistently take actions and invest time and energy on the critical priorities while balancing the daily operational needs, customer demands, and financial requirements.

Frontline leaders can sharpen their focus by:

  • Knowing the organization’s and department’s business goals.
  • Understanding how their team supports those goals and share that knowledge with team members.
  • Being aware of what’s on track and what’s at risk.
  • Knowing how much time (theirs and the team’s) generally is spent contributing to fulfilling priorities.
  • Making priorities—and the progress toward them—visible for your team.
  • Anticipating potential concerns and barriers to fulfilling the team’s goal-supporting work.
  • Balancing operational needs and the other demands of leadership, such as coaching, budgeting, administration, performance management, etc.
  • Addressing urgent, nonpriority items as needed, but refocusing quickly on priorities.

2. Measurement: Track progress and assess outcomes

Once the leader has brought focus to the most important priorities, the next step is to establish and communicate measures that should enable team members to answer two questions. “How will we know if we are on track?” and “Have we been successful?”

There are two types of measures that will provide answers to those questions:

  • Progress measures that monitor trends or track relevant milestones during the course of work.
  • Outcome measures that describe what success will look like. They measure, after the fact, what has been achieved relative to the desired outcome.

Whatever is being measured, here are the criteria to consider when establishing what it means to have good metrics for your organization:

  • Objective: from a perspective we can agree on.
  • Actionable: yielding information we can act on.
  • Consistently trackable over time.
  • Easy to implement and readily available.
  • Quantifiable: stated as a number or percentage.
  • Relevant: yielding information to reveal trends, progress, and barriers.

3. Accountability: Assign work and reinforce responsibly

Executing any strategy requires making a commitment to get tasks done and done well. There are myriad ways to hold people accountable, but I’ve found the following to be the most effective:

  • Hold one person accountable for each progress measure. Avoid joint accountability that usually leads to inaction or confusion.
  • Communicate accountability, including consequences for meeting or not meeting expectations. Discuss the expectations with each person, including consequences if the work exceeds or falls short of the measures that have been outlined.
  • Set monitoring and/or follow-up methods. Discuss with each person how the work will be monitored. Clarify the expectation that follow ups will be regular and encourage people to speak up when obstacles arise.
  • Offer feedback and coaching to ensure success. Indicate to each person that they will have access to coaching and feedback to ensure that they are successful.

To increase the likelihood of accomplishing any strategic initiative it is important that the organization’s senior leaders be visible to, and directly interact with, groups of frontline leaders on a frequent basis. With so much resting on the shoulders of the frontline leaders, it’s imperative that they can engage with the senior leadership directly without having to go through layers of leadership.

To see our research on the specific challenges facing frontline leaders, check out The Frontline Leader Project!

Bruce Court partners with organizations on all aspects of their leadership strategy. He’s experienced in every facet of leadership strategy design, development, and execution. Outside of work, Bruce likes to travel with his wife, Maureen. He loves eating at great restaurants, as well as “sampling” good wine and craft beers. Bruce is also a huge fan of smooth jazz.

Posted: 07 Aug, 2019,
Talk to an Expert: How to Make Frontline Leaders More Strategic
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