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The Critical and Influential Role of the Frontline Manager

Soft skills are the difference between being solely a manager and a true leader.

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Having a strong leadership team is important to the overall success of your company. As your company grows, the importance of the frontline manager grows with it. Frontline managers have a large influence on culture, retention and internal communication.

Culture is not static. It is about the values of the company and the lived experiences of its talent. Leaders at all levels need to understand the desired company culture and how best to ensure this culture thrives. When this doesn't happen, the desired culture can quickly erode.

Take for example a company that values innovation. The c-suite creates an agile structure with self-empowered teams who are given time and encouragement to experiment with new ideas. As the company grows and the spans of control get bigger, management layers are added to the organization. A new manager wants to prove themselves and deliver greater results. She or he begins to dictate to the team how they should tackle problems. The new manager also cuts back on time for experimentation. This team will no longer experience a culture that values innovation. The team members' daily experience of top down, micromanagement begins to erode their belief that the company values innovation.

Now imagine that this manager is rewarded for their results. Because (s)he has cut back on time for experimentation and iteration, the team is now more productive on paper. Other managers see that these results are rewarded and the steps the new manager took to achieve them. A few other managers follow suit. The company culture of innovation is further eroded. This example illustrates the important impact of the frontline manager on culture.

Related: What Bad Managers, Good Managers and Great Managers Do

In addition to culture, frontline managers directly influence the retention of their team members. The old adage that employees don't leave jobs, they leave managers may not be true 100 percent of the time, but direct managers do hold significant responsibility for retention. Direct managers are responsible for setting expectations, performance evaluations, reward and promotional decisions. They also play a key role in many experiences at work including team meetings, team dynamics and exposure to senior management. Retention numbers by team don't tell a complete story and should never be considered in a vacuum. But, it should raise a red flag when one team's numbers are significantly off. When employees have trusting relationships with inspiring leaders, they are more likely to feel valued and stay with the company.

Frontline managers are also an important part of your internal communications. Through their regular interactions with team members, frontline managers offer the most effective form of two-way communication at the company. Set the expectation that your frontline managers keep their team members informed about company happenings and provide them the resources to do so effectively. Provide opportunities for frontline managers to share back news from their team at leadership meetings. It is important for individual contributors to continue to hear from leadership through internal newsletters, all hands and other venues. But, a frontline manager will have more frequent touch and direct communications with employees.

According to Gartner, the changing role of the manager is a workforce trend to watch in 2022. Managers are moving away from more task-based responsibilities that can be automated, like scheduling and approving expense reports. Instead, managers are being asked to exercise soft skills and focus on the human interactions with their direct reports. These findings are right in line with the previous observations of the important role frontline managers play in culture, retention and communication.

Related: We're Failing Frontline Managers. Here's How To Equip Them With ...

What soft skills should you look for in a frontline manager?

You're convinced of the critical role that frontline managers play in your company. It's not enough to just promote your best individual contributors. In fact, many times the best individual contributors do not make the best managers. Key soft skills are a critical difference when identifying true leaders.

So, what skills should you be looking for as you are hiring?

  • Embrace change: With the rapid pace of change, it is important that all leaders embrace change and serve as change champions for the organization.
  • Empathy: To build trust with the team and ensure employees feel supported, leaders need to exhibit empathy.
  • Communication: A good listener is just as important as strong verbal and written communication skills.
  • Coaching: The ability to give and receive actionable feedback is critical for frontline leaders.

Incorporate evaluation of these soft skills into your interview process. This will help to ensure that your frontline managers have the necessary skills to bridge the gap between manager and leader.

Related: Leadership Basics For Frontline Managers

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