Frontline leadership: what it is and why it matters

Frontline leaders are the bridge between organisations, deskless workers and customers. So what are the leadership basics for frontline managers?

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From healthcare to hospitality, essential frontline workers are leaving their jobs in droves. After compensation and Covid-related matters have been taken out of the equation, a Boston Consulting Group survey suggests that one of the main reasons for the exodus could be down to management. So, what's going wrong? We explore the challenges faced by frontline managers and why embracing the potential to lead is crucial if the negative trend is to be reversed.

What is a frontline leader?

What is a frontline leader?

Frontline work involves being away from the main company offices, in locations such as shops, factories, hospitals and warehouses. As part of this organisational structure, frontline managers make up about 60% of a company's total management team and are responsible for up to 80% of the workforce.

In their ranks, you'll find supervisors, section chiefs, store managers, site managers, office managers and area managers – and for many, it's their first managerial role. They play a vital part in bringing coherence to the delivery of goods and services, supervising all aspects of activity and productivity, and keeping a keen eye on day-to-day operations. According to Harvard Business School professor Linda A Hill1, they're "critical to sustaining quality, service, innovation and financial performance".

However, Covid dealt frontline workers a painful blow, even as it showed how valuable they are both in business and across wider society. The deskless employees who continued working during the pandemic, often close to the public, saw their job security disappear. They've also suffered more than other sectors from mental and physical health issues, as well as a higher risk of income loss. What's more, the figures show that they were more likely than other workers to become infected with the virus.

All of this has made it necessary for frontline managers to step up and embrace their potential as leaders. This doesn't just mean managing their teams, but also inspiring, supporting, influencing and encouraging growth even as the aftershocks of the pandemic are still reverberating.

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Why is frontline leadership so important?

Why is frontline leadership so important?

Productivity may be a primary focus, but the remit for frontline leaders extends far beyond the functional. Frontline leaders are the bridge between frontline workers and the rest of the organisation. They hold the broader vision of the company and must be able to share it in a way that's relevant to disparate teams who may feel geographically and emotionally disconnected from head office.

They must also be able to step away from the detail of daily delivery and identify when procedures and processes are due an upgrade – and then guide their teams through the changes needed. The impetus for action may also come from outside in the form of company-wide initiatives, such as product launches or the introduction of new technology. Frontline leaders must make sure that their direct reports have the skills they need to work safely and effectively. That means establishing a programme of learning and development, starting from day one with the onboarding process.

As well as their internal responsibilities, they have an external focus to maintain too. Frontline leaders stand at the point where your business meets the outside world, often in direct contact with customers, suppliers, partners and business prospects. It places them in the position of brand ambassador, and the service they provide is a huge influence on the public perception of your organisation.

Now more than ever, those leading frontline teams are being called on to be influencers, strategists, mentors and proactive, creative problem-solvers, as well as relationship-builders.

Five challenges facing frontline leaders

Five challenges facing frontline leaders

1. A lack of leadership training

Just 12% of senior leaders believe that their company invests enough time, money and resources into equipping frontline managers, according to Harvard Business Review. Yet with many promotions to frontline leadership based largely on technical competence alone, other skills such as people management, influencing or negotiating may be lacking. It makes ongoing professional training and development an essential to support these fledging managers in their new roles.

However, according to the learning solutions agency CoreAxis2, if training is given "it tends to be ad hoc, sporadic or too brief", and so of limited value.

Harvard Business Review recommends stepping away from traditional classroom-based professional development formats, which it describes as "theoretical and abstract". Instead, it suggests the modelling of excellence with peer teaching and mentoring from a team of your best managers. And, of course, deskless workers need to be able to access training, so it may also mean offering smartphone-based learning for frontline leaders without a computer.

2. Demotivated teams

70% of frontline workers have either experienced burnout or felt at risk of burning out, according to Fortune – a situation exacerbated by COVID lockdowns. It's led, in part, to the Great Resignation. In March 2022, there were 11 million unfilled jobs in the US, many vacated by frontline workers quitting their jobs for higher pay or a better work-life balance. Those that stay place weightier expectations on their managers to support them. Meanwhile 84% of frontline leaders blame themselves for high employee burnout, with the increased pressure to deliver, leading to them working longer hours.

3. Feeling undervalued

Frontline leaders often have a wealth of knowledge to share about the practical running of the business as well as customer behaviour and preferences. But many frontline leaders feel out of the loop with their company's central office. Less than half (43%) say that they're regularly consulted on business decisions that affect their customers, even though they and their teams are at the coalface. Add to this the fact that only 20% of frontline managers say that they're regularly recognised and made to feel valued, and the likely result is disengagement and demotivation, which tends to trickle down to their direct reports.

Discover the antidote to this in our article Why connecting frontline workers is good for business.

4. Managing a diverse frontline workforce

Frontline workers may be geographically diverse. They're also likely to be multigenerational and at very different stages of their careers. This gives their managers the challenge of navigating a wide variety of experiences, attitudes and perspectives, and channelling them all in one direction.

With so many workers under their supervision, frontline leaders must be able to understand and support diversity in all its forms. This includes physical ability, differences in language, literacy and cognitive skills, and the many considerations that apply to a workforce that's likely to be hallmarked by different races, religions, cultures, genders and sexual identities. Inclusivity and equity must be the objectives, but increased employee engagement can be the result if managers are able to hear what their teams really need to thrive.

5. Technology in flux

The pandemic moved technology on at a pace, and this includes automation. Although AI isn't about replacing frontline workers with robots, it is changing the roles of frontline workers operating machinery or those doing repetitive or labour-intensive manual tasks.

Guiding their teams through technological change and uncertainty into the calmer waters beyond is a priority for frontline leaders. This requires training on both sides to enable new tech to be fully integrated, establishing the business processes needed to support it, and encouraging the "human skills" of creative problem-solving and emotional intelligence. It's also an invaluable opportunity for managers to support frontline workers in engaging with their own professional development.

Five essential frontline leadership skills

Five essential frontline leadership skills

To plot a successful path through the potential minefield of frontline responsibilities, leaders need the key skills.

1. Communication

Dialogue is a cornerstone of successful management, and a key factor in building trust. It means being able to speak clearly, concisely and authentically, but also listening carefully, encouraging feedback and offering considered responses rather than just reacting when challenges arise.

Good communication requires understanding too. For frontline leaders, this means knowing exactly how their teams fit into the wider business strategy, while keeping the needs and perspectives of their people front and centre.

With a deskless workforce, tech competence is another key part of the communication package. Frontline managers must be able to reach people in different locations or on the road. This makes online collaboration tools, video conferencing, messaging platforms and mobile apps invaluable in bringing people together.

2. Influencing

Squeezed between the demands of those above and below them, frontline leaders have been described as "the choke point between upper management and frontline workers". It makes influencing skills essential. They must be able to motivate and have a positive effect on the decisions of others, presenting a clear case and persuasive arguments. They need the ability to negotiate and find the win-win wherever possible.

3. A growth mindset

From embracing new tech to greater inclusivity, being open to new learning is vital for any frontline leader wanting to stay flexible, responsive and resilient. With the knowledge that they have the potential to improve, leaders are more likely to look at failure objectively, seeing it as a launchpad to greater success rather than a setback. Part of developing a growth mindset also involves recognising where you have a fixed mindset and challenging those limitations.

4. Emotional intelligence (EQ)

The ability for frontline leaders to recognise and understand their own feelings and emotions, as well as those of others is vital – particularly with the high rates of burnout amongst frontline teams. It's a skill that encompasses self-awareness, self-regulation (healthy self-control), self-motivation, empathy and being able to establish relationships built on mutual trust and respect.

5. Creativity

Being able to think outside the box isn't just for the creative industries. From problem-solving to strategising, creativity makes space for innovation, increases the potential for more effective solutions and enables frontline leaders to see the world through other people's eyes.

Exercise, workplace journalling, periods of downtime and switching off from tech can all facilitate the creative mind and the ability to think bigger and better.

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1, 2 "Importance of front line managers & why they cannot be forgotten in leadership development", Coreaxis, 2019.
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