Share this content

Changing the wheels of the bus while its still moving

2nd Mar 2010
Share this content

The front-line produces the bottom-line.  They are closest to the customers, they hold the majority of problems (and solutions).  They are the real face of the organisation and they get the flack when it goes wrong.  However while this is acknowledged it is still true that front-line leaders receive the least development and support as the recent McKinsey and co report (How companies manage the front line today) shows.  

Their findings are also borne out by the Bath University and CIPD studies 'Bringing policies to life'.   Adding to this over 55 years research into what makes sustainable high-performance by the Creative Problem-solving Group highlights the role of front-line managers in the creation of a climate for innovation and creativity

What these reports clearly show is that front-line management generally find themselves in their roles due to excellence in their technical function.  They also show that only 10% of front-line managers training is effective in helping them to lead and that senior managers have little recognition of the burdens of the role.  They are not generally well-supported to develop their leadership, climate creation, stakeholder engagement and innovation skills.  Yet there is a strong correlation between what they do and the performance of the organisation. 

Front line managers are where the rubber really hits the road.  Their responses provide today's agenda and influence tomorrow's, irrespective of what may be happening in the boardroom.  

So much for what we all already know - at least intuitively.  However, it is these very people that are amongst the most busy and stressed; balancing the twin pressures of external customer delivery and the internal pressures to improve, produce, change and adapt.  There tend to be many of them so us 'leadership development experts' tend to focus on a chosen few - those in the talent pipeline and spend our limited resources on them.  The preference is to support only those selected few in the chosen seats while hoping the majority of the passengers on the bus get infected or at least cope with the ride. 

The military take a different view.  They need flexible capability at the point of use.  It needs to be immediately available and able to communicate their needs with clarity.  They spend considerable time developing core leadership capability amongst all those that will take on responsibility for others.  Generally before or shortly after each major role change they provide 'upgrade' training sometimes technical sometimes leadership, administrative and other similar skills.  Of course they have the resources to achieve this - though they are increasingly stretched.  They ensure everyone that is likely to get on the bus is well-prepared before they take the journey.

So the dilemma remains.  How to develop the leadership, communication and problem-solving capabilities needed in ways that don't add to the complexity or need intensive resources.  Favoured options include developing a 'coaching culture' where busy mid-managers are asked to 'coach' and develop their reports or more recent moves towards social media and e-learning based approaches. 

Coaching is an interesting concept.  It assumes that the coach has the right experience and yields this in ways that benefits the coachee; ie they have the motivation, skills and knowledge to make it worthwhile.  It also depends on the importance, urgency and time available to the coach and coachee to undergo what can be a lengthy and drawn out process.  While the best coaches do not direct a solution pathway this frequently happens as they lean into their paradigms.  This becomes a major flaw - it assumes that the knowledge of the coach that provided the method and path they followed and used is a valid, reliable and 'best one'.  It generally produces similar thinking, reinforces existing paradigms and frequently builds in limitations.  It is time-consuming and frequently poorly structured from a developmental perspective.

A key finding from the McKinsey study is that a re-definition of the role of front-line managers is necessary to help them see coaching as a key aspect of their role.  But where do they get their role models and concepts of best practice from?

The bus is moving and everyone is trying to change some of the tyres, some of the time in different ways - and many of these reinforce the mistakes of the past or may not be fit for the information-loaded, highly-complex future.

E-learning and social media approaches provide information.  They cannot provide the skills experience and wisdom. They can help with an understanding of the available tool-set but do little to help with the technique of applying the tool in the best way with the right people to get the optimum result. It is cheap but you get the tyres you pay for.

The bus is still moving and we haven't yet successfully changed the wheels.  

What about rapidly changing one wheel at a time in ways that build and enhance what is good and effectively tackle what is not?  What about securing the benefits before moving on to the next one?  Making sure the wheel is quickly changed and that it has more than paid for itself.  Think rapid pit stop, air-powered bolt guns, refuel and 5 second turnaround before getting back out there.

At front-line levels the real need is for leadership skills, tools and an understanding of how and when to apply them.  Taking this focus and working on live issues as ways to introduce new skills in the moment supported by reflective practice can yield immediate and lasting results.  It changes the paradigms of leadership development and raises the game for those leading their development to rapid problem-solving, prototyping and reflection.  Best of all it helps not hinders.  It adds and doesn't take away.  But it does require a very different skill set from those supporting this type of development intervention.  

Tags:

Related content

Replies (1)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

avatar
By f1girl
26th Mar 2010 20:16

This is an excellent and very insightful piece. I've long thought that first line managers have one of the hardest jobs in ANY business because of their dual-role. They are often give conflicting messages about where their priorities should be, and told to 'manage their teams' with little or no support, as well as 'do whatever is necessary to deliver today's tagets/deal with immediate situations'

I've noticed that there is a rise in bite-sized learning and (in some more enlightened organisations) a re-emergence of action learning, to try and give these managers the skills that they need to manage, whilst giving them the time they need to 'do'. Instinctively, this feels like a good thing to do, but as this article highlights, it's by no means a guaranteed route to success.

Sheridan Webb

www.keystonedevelopment.co.uk

Thanks (0)