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We're Failing Frontline Managers. Here's How To Equip Them With Better People Insights

We're stuck in management models where messages from the top get lost in the middle – but there's a solution.

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In the engineering department at a fast-growing startup, it's just 10 a.m. on Monday, and people manager Brian is already wishing for Friday. He's fielding technical questions from his team, resolving disputes, training the newest engineer and interviewing two new candidates this afternoon.

Brian's under pressure, and many of his decisions are based on instinct. There's no time to check in with the bosses or consider how his actions align with the company's long-term strategies. Vaguely, he knows there are diversity quotas to be considered, but by the time the interviews roll around, he often just hires the person who strikes him as most familiar — someone whose profile looks a lot like his.

But Brian isn't all to blame. His shortcomings are the symptom of a larger problem.

Organizations are striving for a fast and flat model where we collapse the distance between the CEO's operational strategy and frontline talent decisions. However, some management structures haven't quite caught up. We're stuck in outmoded, industrial models where messages from the top often get lost in the middle.

Why? It's because we're playing a game of telephone. As word travels through the organizational chart, from leadership down the ranks to the people who implement it, the message gets distorted. Nowhere is this more problematic than in talent decisions.

Related: How to Continue Your Diversity Initiatives in 2022

Talent management: Especially important, especially problematic

Despite often being the single biggest capital expense at an organization, too often hiring decisions are given the short shrift.

Frontline managers like Brian, who directly supervise around 80% of the total workforce, are entrusted with talent decisions. But they routinely make decisions based on urgency, personal bias and inertia. Real-time data and predictive software that could better inform their decisions isn't in the flow of their work, and they often don't see how their individual actions connect to a larger company strategy.

In contrast, consider how financial decisions are made. Information from the chief financial officer is readily available, and managers have a clear understanding of how granular decisions add up to the strategic plan. Leaders typically can't go more than a month or quarter without being held accountable for what shows up in the profits and losses, but it could take months (or years) before reconciling misaligned hiring and promotion choices.

So, what's behind the gap? The traditional HR structure doesn't treat data the way the CFO treats its data. Too often, HR thinks about talent as big swaths of people instead of individuals.

More challenging still: There's a tendency to withhold HR data from the broader organization and beyond. Part of it is rooted in privacy concerns, but it can also be rooted in fear — organizations worry they'll take flack for releasing unflattering data, or worse, get sued. What insights are shared tend to be incomprehensible for the average manager — framed in HR jargon with little explanation of how HR data intersects with other business outcomes like profitability or revenue.

The reality is that metrics like salary, diversity and career progression are business data. In the modern world, if you don't share data, it's not going to change. Companies won't see progress until people can see their decisions in the data.

Related: If You Want to Scale, Give the People You Hire Freedom to Succeed

It's time to get granular with people strategy

Frontline people managers have been asked to operate for too long based on instincts and urgency. But there's a better way. Three key elements can empower frontline managers with better insights about their people.

First, they need better training. Frontline managers today are player-coaches. They've excelled in their domain, climbed the ranks and are then asked to take on the entirely different skill set of managing people — but professional development is neglected. As organizations, we need to place more emphasis on the manager experience, and give people managers the tools and resources they need to do their job.

Next, a cultural shift is necessary. An engineering manager at a startup like Brian's devotes at least half of their workday to hiring and people management, but they're often kept from insights they need to align their decisions with company strategy. We need to free people data from its silo in the HR department and make it accessible to everyone in the organization. HR needs to get beyond reporting on transactions and show patterns and connections. Promotion history isn't as valuable as a combined look at career progression, salary arc, learning opportunities, productivity achievements, life events and recognition in a single integrated view. Managers should demand a more holistic view of their employees.

Lastly, we must use the right technology and make it easy. What we ask people managers to do is like asking a driver to navigate through the streets of a busy city on memory alone. Sure, sometimes experience and instinct lead to good results. But traffic jams and road closures are unpredictable. The technology exists to give people managers their own Waze or Google Maps equivalent. Tools equipped with analytical and predictive functionality to navigate the complexities of talent exist, but not enough organizations are using them.

What does it look like when we get this right?

When we first started our diversity, equity and inclusion journey at Visier, we started with the hypothesis that we'd never be more diverse than the people doing the hiring and promoting. So, we started with that population — our frontline people managers. With the help of technology, transparency and training along the way, we encountered moments to reflect and correct — akin to a profit and loss statement — every month. This kept the company honest and kept goals aligned from the top down.

Speaking firsthand, when we shifted from talking about diversity to sharing the hiring and promotion rates of men and women, things changed. Visier has improved the representation of women in our people manager group from 26% to over 35% in one year. This is on a five-year journey towards parity. Sharing numbers changed the behavior.

Indeed, our greatest hope of achieving the fast and flat operational models we strive for, is to stop making people managers operate on instinct and urgency. Make sure frontline managers are fully plugged into organizational goals, with the distance between executive vision and frontline implementation radically flattened, and an organization will begin to see enormous benefits — from business plan execution to employee retention.

Related: What Hiring with Empathy Looks Like in a Post-Covid World

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