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What Are You Doing to Fortify Your Frontline?

by Verity Creedy

Fortify Your Frontline LeadersHave you seen the meme making the rounds as posts on LinkedIn and Twitter, commonly with hashtags associated with leadership, development, and investing in people?

CFO: What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us?
CEO: What happens if we don’t and they stay?

The comments on these posts are full of positive words and shouts of agreement with the sentiment behind the two questions. People championed the benefits of developing employees and promoted the validated data that if their company invested in them then they would be more engaged to stay and not more qualified to leave.

As I work for a global organization that is obsessed with developing leaders to help businesses achieve their strategic aims, the response of the hypothetical CEO didn’t shock me. After all, our most recent Global Leadership Forecast research detailed the number-one challenge of surveyed CEOs as developing “next-gen” leaders.

But all this got me thinking about the sort of investments CFOs are asked to make—technical education, behavioral training, and, of course, leadership skill development—and where they commonly spend the most money. Chief Learning Officer board data indicates that most investments are made at the senior level for succession planning and high-potential development, and that sat comfortably with me. That was until I realized the leadership level receiving some of the smallest allocation of development dollars is the one populated by the leaders leading the most people by far. In fact, 80 percent of a company’s employee population is led by frontline leaders.

What are CEOs and CFOs contemplating for these frontline leaders? Among this audience will be high-potentials and future successors, but even more importantly than that, the frontline leaders are the ones closest to a company’s customers, the ones driving operations and operational efficiency daily, and the retention of 80 percent of employees depends on their effectiveness.

Yet, this cadre of leaders are not getting much developmental focus. As Victor Lipman writes in his Harvard Business Review article, “As I neared the end of my corporate days, I realized I’d received much more management training in the last five years than I did in the first 20 years—when I really needed it.”

All this musing led me to two questions: What do frontline leaders need in terms of development, and how would they like to be developed?

What do frontline leaders need for their development?

To answer this question we looked back at our Global Leadership Forecast research data and examined the correlation between the skills identified as most critical for the next three years, current frontline effectiveness against these skills, and where there is (or isn’t) a current development focus. From this analysis there were four obvious opportunities for frontline leader skill development:

  1. Leading with digitization. Technology is not going away and will only become an increasingly critical part of organizational growth—in both efficiency and profit. Demonstrating a comfortable understanding of technology-centred opportunities, challenges, and consequences is essential for frontline leaders because they need to be confident with technology so they can support their team in using it on the job.
  2. Leading virtual teams. While development is increasingly offered on this topic, it is one of the least effective areas of frontline leaders today. Frontline leaders must be able to use appropriate technology and tools, as well as interpersonal styles to guide and motivate remote teams. I am regularly asked by leaders how to coach via voicemail, give feedback over WhatsApp, or manage conflict across three geographic regions. We should not expect frontline leaders to “trial and error” through such challenges on their own. Instead, we need to give them guidance and methods to assist them in successfully leading virtual teams.
  3. 360-degree thinking & driving transformation: No one can predict what the next phase of corporate change will be, but frontline leaders can be developed to identify and understand problems or opportunities, use data and technology to form holistic perspectives, and choose the best course of action. Some frontline leaders will have a natural ability to think broadly and make good decisions when driving change—but companies too often leave this to chance and fail to develop leaders in this crucial area.
  4. Leveraging diversity & cultural curiosity: Diversity is not a numbers game. It’s more than hitting quotas; it’s also about helping a company thrive through diverse perspectives and passions. This is all the more possible if frontline leaders have been given the skills to effectively seek out experiences to learn more about people from other cultures and backgrounds, and develop a sensitivity, as well as appreciation, for cultural cues that drive individual behavior.

How do frontline leaders want to be developed?

By looking back at our research, we can also see an established set of development activities that frontline leaders prefer. The list includes many of the usual suspects, such as formal workshops, developmental assignments, micro-learning, and computer-based and mobile learning.

However, the research also showed that there are things frontline leaders want in their development but which are not frequently offered by organizations. Interestingly, the results were consistent across the frontline leaders surveyed, regardless of whether they were Millennials, Generation X, or Baby Boomers. Here are the three most requested, yet least offered, development requests from all frontline leaders:

  1. Make it relevant to me. The clearest message from frontline leaders is that they want their development to feel personalized. This does not mean creating hundreds of different programs but helping them to see how the development options available align with their unique needs. Therefore, an assessment or evaluation of strength and improvement areas is important to support such personalization, as well as a balance of group and individual learning activities.
  2. Make it available when I need it. On-demand learning is important to these learners and technology plays a big role here. Providing frontline leaders with a variety of development tools and templates when they need them is essential. Learners also like the anonymity to browse development offerings without any embarrassment—for example, “I want advice on handling conflict but don’t want to highlight issues,” or “I need some coaching basics but feel ashamed to ask after three years as a manager.” 
  3. Give me an external voice. Interestingly, when it comes to the learning techniques that frontline leaders crave, they rated value from external mentors or coaches higher than coaching from their managers. This doesn’t suggest you should invest in brining in expensive external coaches for each of your frontline leaders, but providing external research, models, and insight on leadership topics is appreciated. Leaders can also lean on external trainers for their perspectives and guidance before, during, and after formal training sessions.

Putting the organization at risk

So, what would my answer be to the CFO’s and CEO’s questions? Frontline leaders have your most important asset—your people—in their hands, and not investing in them puts your organization at incredible risk. Not developing these leaders results in 80 percent of your employees moving through change more slowly, being cautious to embrace or promote technology, and never bringing their full unique potential to their roles.

I would also tell them not to worry too much about those being developed leaving, and instead be aware that not investing in the frontline increases the likelihood of 80 percent of their employees leaving. Because, after all, what’s the number-one reason employees leave an organization?

They’re tired of reporting to an ineffective leader.

Register for the webinar, “Get Ready for the New World of Frontline Leadership Development.”

Verity Creedy heads up DDI’s European sales team and is based in London. When she’s not working with clients to identify talent solutions that address their business strategic aims, Verity can be found reading endless Bizzy Bear books with her young daughter, window-shopping at unusual shoe stores, and finding new ways to raise money for Cancer Research UK. If you have any Bizzy Bear favorites, shoe store recommendations, or fundraising ideas, please send them to

Posted: 13 Feb, 2019,
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