With countless articles written on frontline leaders, you would think that we would have found the answer on how to improve their performance by now. And yet, here we are. Frontline leaders are still unable to execute on their strategic goals, with most falling back into fulfilling their previous roles as mechanics and operators instead of leading the line.
Why is that? Why are we, as senior leaders, still unable to get the frontline to perform? After all, we have given them the proper training and have told them what to do, so what is keeping frontline leaders from being effective assets to the company? If we still can’t find the answer, then it’s time to look inward.
Understanding Where Senior Leaders Fit In
Recognizing the role we play in our frontline leaders’ performance can be a bitter pill to swallow. Telling ourselves that we’ve done everything to train and develop frontline leaders doesn’t change the fact that the disconnect between the strategic vision and tactical execution persists.
A common mistake we make as senior leaders is to confuse compliance training with development. In most organizations, the norm is to check off the box for training—especially when under pressure to perform. And too often, training and development are the first things to go when the company is looking to cut costs.
Another reason for the gap is that we often fail to set the frontline leaders’ expectations and hold them accountable for their role and responsibilities. Because they don’t understand how the position aligns with the strategic vision, they can’t communicate and identify the skill sets and core competencies needed to execute the role.
Consequently, frontline leaders are left waffling on what they should be doing, resorting to what they know best—focusing on tactical tasks. But the issue isn’t only senior leaders. It’s also the organizational structure. In many companies, what you often find is a culture of firefighting.
In this system, reactive problem solving is congratulated and rewarded. This manifests itself in an environment where everyone is busy. People are merely resolving an issue in the short-term instead of using strategic thinking to solve the underlying problem. Essentially, whoever is best at putting out fires is celebrated with promotions and raises. Hence, the frontline leader becomes a senior leader who thinks tactically instead of strategically.
As firefighting increases, training and development decrease. Since the frontline and senior leaders are working below their levels, the firefighting culture is sustained in a perpetually diminishing cycle until the consequences become too hard to ignore.
It’s only when the organization is suffering from high turnover and poor performance, for example, that corrective action is undertaken. Even then, the default is to place blame instead of taking accountability due to the general lack of awareness that permeates the organization.
Taking Control of the Situation
So, where do we begin? What steps must we take to ensure we are leading the team down the right path? Taking control lies in recognizing the role we play in the system, owning our frontline’s development and coaching to drive results.
Senior leaders who get it right have the self-awareness to understand that it’s their responsibility to translate the organization’s strategic vision into tactical execution effectively. They work closely with HR to identify the roles needed to affect the bottom line, and they’re able to set their frontline leaders’ expectations clearly and hold them accountable.
More importantly, these senior leaders consistently gather feedback from the frontline to make iterative changes to the strategic vision to ensure alignment. Through this framework, they empower their frontline to develop the critical thinking needed to drive innovation.
When we tell our frontline leaders to follow a process and don’t provide direction, we’re creating a situation where everyone resorts to what they’re comfortable doing. Because there is no strategic vision, frontline managers are unable to see the value of their work, leading to an undesirable work environment.
Frontline leaders are the engine that drive the execution forward. Companies can’t let this most valuable asset go to waste. Instead, as the senior leader, take ownership of their development and empower them to think strategically. Even in a company with the best technology, the best process, and the best product, if people are not equipped with the tools they need to be successful, the business will not achieve the results it could.
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David Bartholomew has over 26 years of experience in Leadership and Behavior Change. Having served as a Coach, Consultant, and Business Leader, he brings expertise in Leadership Development, Change Management, Training Design, Facilitation, Engagement, and Culture. David has worked with complex organizations across multiple industries to leverage human strengths and capabilities for performance improvement. He currently serves as Director of Organizational Effectiveness and Leadership for Myrtle Consulting Group. He is also a Leader of the People and Organization Practice Community. David’s experience includes an Executive Coaching Practice, and senior leadership roles in the Harris County Hospital District of Houston and in the City of New Orleans, where he helped lead the Health Department through Hurricane Katrina as Director of Health Policy. David holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work, a Leadership Fellow, and certificates as an Expert Coach and Mediator. He has also been a featured national speaker on Leadership and Change Management.