Distracted woman demonstrating leadership disruptions


Time is Everything When it Comes to Frontline Leader Development

Learn the major disruptions frontline leaders face in their roles and how to give them the learning and development they need to overcome these disruptions and make the most of their time.

Publish Date: August 22, 2019

Read Time: 5 min

Author: Andrew Warren-Smith

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As I began to write this blog, the first thought that entered my mind was how much time would someone really have to read this given everything else they have to do today?

So, let me quickly get to my point: If you are responsible for preparing frontline leaders to tackle the challenges of a rapidly changing business environment, then I suggest you grab a coffee and settle in for a quick but important read. This will be 10 minutes of time well spent. I promise. If not, your next coffee is on me.

Demanding. Challenging. Complex. Time-consuming. More than what I signed up for. These are words I hear increasingly often from leaders. Sixty percent of frontline leaders are receiving no training, so it’s no surprise they are feeling overwhelmed and unprepared. But how can we be leaving this learning to chance when these first-level leaders manage 80 percent of our workforce?

This post will explore the disruptions frontline leaders face in the 480 minutes they have in each of their eight-hour workdays and offer three actionable ways you can provide learning and development to help your leaders maximize their time each day.

Radically Compressed Work

Leaders spend a large portion of their time working not only surrounded by a complex business landscape, but also in an environment where everything is compressed. There are shorter work cycles and increased levels of experimentation, which results in the need for faster decision making as organizations seek to differentiate themselves from both current and emerging competitors.

In fact, business decisions that were once the domain of senior leaders are being pushed further down in the organization—placing higher levels of pressure on managers who are being asked to make decisions that can have significant strategic business consequences.

Networked Teams

In today’s highly collaborative environment, leaders spend much of their time working with others to get things done. Although, traditionally, first level leaders had very clear lines of authority (hence the use of the term supervisor/manager), this is changing.

In more team-based, networked organizations, the ability to get things done through others requires a very different approach to the traditional “positional power” method. Rising to the fore in these highly connected organizations is the need to develop key leadership skills such as communication, hyper-collaboration, leading virtually, and an openness to constant change and growth.

People Are Craving Impact

The relationship between companies and people has changed. Employers need more from their people, and in turn, people expect more from their working experience. Employees want to feel like they are making a worthwhile contribution in the time they spend at work; they want interesting work, are looking for growth and opportunity; they expect transparency and instant access to information—and they are not going to wait around for it.

Managers have a huge responsibility. It’s up to them to get the best out of their people by making them feel valued and that they can stay and grow with the company. It’s up to them to be transparent about what the company is doing and provide purpose behind the “why.” And, it’s up to these leaders to drive change by managing the stress and emotions that arise as their company constantly asks them to change.

Leaders in Constant Transition

Even though first-level managers are in a constant state of transition they are still required to step up to all of these expectations.

It’s clear that while the role of a manager is not new, the context in which these leaders operate is rapidly changing. We know that highly engaged managers drive better engagement with clients, and they drive higher productivity and increased profitability.

If anxious, stressed, and unprepared is the way these leaders are feeling about their roles, then how can we expect them to deliver on the new expectations people have for their leaders and their organizations?

So how can you better prepare and support your frontline leaders to help them make the most of their time?

Take a More Human-Centered Approach to Supporting and Developing Leaders

Something we often lose sight of when addressing leadership roles, particularly at the front line, is that leadership is deeply personal. We often take a clinical view of leadership, describing it as a mix of knowledge, skills, and experiences—and we tend to forget that behind every leader is a person.

Leadership is ultimately a human endeavor that comes with a range of personal and business challenges, but it also comes with plenty of opportunities and personal rewards. It’s easy to forget this and perhaps too often we focus on the failings of leaders, their skill deficits, and their lack of readiness, rather than taking a more human-centered approach that focuses on supporting them through their personal leadership journeys.

Build Critical Skills That Help Leaders Succeed Everyday

It’s in the minute-to-minute interactions throughout the day that leaders have the greatest impact on others—either positive or negative. To be effective in these small but critical daily moments, every leader needs to develop essential leadership skills to help them connect with and motivate others. The core skills of communication—with an acute focus on empathy and listening—together with coaching are foundational to making these moments matter and often the difference between success and failure for leaders.

The other two skills that we see growing in importance are business judgment and personal mastery. Business judgement draws on developments in the field of behavioral economics and is the ability to make sound business judgements aligned to the cultural and strategic priorities of the organization. Leaders at all levels are asked every day to navigate a myriad of issues and stakeholder interests when making judgments and decisions. Personal mastery recognizes the importance of understanding yourself while also understanding the implications of how you work with others and get things done. 

Explore More Impactful Learning Experiences

Not only do we need to build skills that enable managers to operate with confidence and competence in their time at work every day, but we also need to ensure that development is closely tied to the very things leaders need to do. If there is one thing we are hearing more and more from leaders, it is that they want their learning to be relevant.

We need to ensure that learning and development is deeply relevant to the leader’s role and what she or he is required to do. When we approach more formal development, whether it be classroom, digital learning, or a combination of both, development must address real situations and challenges that leaders experience. To ensure the formal part of a leader’s development is effective, there are three other principles I recommend you incorporate into your learning approach:

1. Consider the Context

The design must be informed by the goals and priorities of your organization, team, and role. In essence: What is the learner being asked to do? For example, coaching a team member to higher levels of performance; supporting digital transformation; building an environment that harnesses the strengths of a diverse and inclusive team, allowing innovation to flourish, etc.

2. Use Personalization Correctly

The learning experience must consider the whole person—personality, motivations, experience, and skills. A more personalized experience is not delivered by simply offering multiple learning options without any guidance. Instead, it’s about drawing on insight to tailor the learning experience to match the needs, attributes, and motivations of the leader—engaging both the head and heart. It means bringing learners into the experience in a way that makes them feel like they are being seen, that we know who they are, that we understand what they like/dislike, and that we recognize they are at the very center of the learning experience.

3. Make Learning Immersive, Engaging, and Emotionally Connected

Learning needs to feel different to make an impact (i.e., support behavior change). There are a multitude of new learning modalities you can employ—such as virtual assessments—or even virtual reality for skill practice and on-demand coaching. With virtual reality you can place people into rich experiences that enable them to establish a deeper emotional connection and understanding of the impact of their choices in the real world. And this all occurs in a safe (virtual) environment.

Help Your Leaders Make Every Moment Count

I hope you’ve found at least one idea in the last 10 minutes you’ve spent reading this you can leverage for your frontline leader development initiatives. I also hope you’ve taken away that you can’t afford to leave learning to chance—and even if you have already implemented some strategies, you know the importance of not adopting a “build-it-and-they-will-come” approach to learning.

First-level leaders without a doubt occupy some of the most pivotal roles in your organization. And we must make every effort to support them in making each moment of their day count for the people and teams they lead to truly make a difference.

I’d love to buy you that cup of coffee and discuss your frontline leader strategy, so please reach out!

Download our Ultimate Guide to Leadership Development

Andrew Warren-Smith is the Managing Director of DDI in Australia. When he’s not working with clients to build their leadership bench, he’s strategizing how he can overcome the date of birth conundrum by training for his next marathon.

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