In the frontline

by Iain Hopkins25 Jun 2012

Despite heightened awareness of the impact line managers have on engagement and employee perceptions of an employer, companies are still lagging when it comes to appropriate training for first time managers.

Paula Willscroft, head of open programs at the Australian Institute of Management, says it’s not unusual for first time managers to find themselves thrown in the deep end, with little or no L&D support.

“People are promoted before they’re prepared, particularly when there’s an internal move. Often it’s still a case of promoting before they’re provided with what I would call the toolkit – the essentials they will need,” she says.

So what should that toolkit include? Willscroft suggests there are three key areas. The first is self-knowledge. “The individual needs to have a deep understanding of what their capabilities are now, and what the new role will demand of them,” she says. “It’s often that transition from being technically great to being able to manage a team, being able to step back. That’s a big shift for people to make.”

Self-knowledge includes an understanding of strengths and weaknesses (development opportunities). It’s also about knowing how they best learn and where they can take learning opportunities from. It’s also understanding the ‘helicopter view’ – and knowing that they need time to reflect not only on themselves but also the team dynamics and how their team operates as part of a larger entity.

A second area is getting the job done and delivering on the expectations that are placed on them – that includes skills around planning, project management, continuous improvement. Willscroft notes there’s also increasingly an expectation that frontline managers will have an impact on innovation. Although innovation can be defined in a range of ways, at that frontline level it’s about improving systems and processes, thinking a little more creatively about problem solving, and having a solution orientation as much as accepting the status quo. The best innovation comes from listening to what clients want, and listening to what people at the coal face are doing – because they’re doing the job, and they know how best to improve it.

“These are things that young managers in particular are good at. They are often naturally curious, creative and have a lot of energy about wanting to change things moving forward. A good development program will provide them with a framework, template, process, and tools to be able to do that in a way that positions them to be able to influence outside their own team,” says Willscroft.

Thirdly, the skills toolkit must include leadership capability. This includes teambuilding, team performance, individual performance management, a great ability to communicate not only with the team but across the organisation, recognition they (frontline managers) are not operating in a silo, and managing stakeholders and customers at that interpersonal level.

This leadership component is crucial, and again self-knowledge comes to the fore. New managers need to be aware of their impact on other people and appreciate that one behavioural style may not necessarily fit every situation. It’s also important to know that what worked for them as a team member may not necessarily work for them as a team leader. Accompanying this are ‘discreet skills’ around influencing and negotiation – particularly on behalf of a team. The practical elements will include knowledge of the things managers need to ask themselves to create their personal approach to leadership.

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