Three steps for developing effective first-line managers

Developing first-line managers gives you productivity and engagement benefits – and the highest return on your training investment, says Matt McIntyre

Which role in your organisation makes the greatest impact on the bottom line? Surprisingly, it isn’t the CEO – or any functional director – it’s actually your first-line managers. They’re the ones who’ll drive the frontline staff who will make or break your business. Without effective first-line managers, it’s almost impossible for your organisation to thrive.

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Yet first-line managers are rarely selected for their leadership abilities or influencing skills. Instead, they’re typically promoted from the frontline because they were good at their job. Then, suddenly, they’re thrust into a new position where they have to deal with four key challenges.

1. They’ll have new responsibilities. Their role is split between process aspects: conducting performance reviews, developing others, running meetings, negotiating with other departments, and people aspects: managing their teams, managing discipline and handling difficult people. To cope, they’ll need to develop new skills and new behaviour.

2. They’ll have new stakeholders. First-line managers provide a bridge between the leadership team and the frontline. They’ll have to learn to manage upwards and to influence and deal with senior managers effectively.

3. They’re managing their former colleagues. Once they were part of a team, now they’re in charge of that team. This adds a complex dynamic to the role, particularly for young people who have to manage colleagues who are older than them, who’ve been with the organisation for longer or who have more experience. Ultimately, this transition requires a mindset change from being a ‘team member’ (where you selfishly look after your own interests) to becoming a ‘manager’ (where you selflessly look after the team). This involves relinquishing control and trusting in others.

4. Their job specification has changed. A first-line manager’s role used to be about getting things done by organising, resourcing, monitoring and up-skilling the team. In today’s flatter structures, where the pace of change is faster, it also involves being a counsellor, a facilitator, a mediator and a motivator who can drive performance. Attitudes in the workplace have also changed and many frontline staff now have a more transactional relationship with their employer. First-line managers are therefore striving to inspire and support people who might be less committed to the organisation.

These are significant challenges for anyone to contend with. If first-line managers are not given the help and support they need, they’ll either leave, they’ll fail to be effective in the role – or they’ll achieve some success but it’ll come at great personal cost, in terms of the stress and long hours they’ll endure. If your first-line managers are stressed or ineffective, your frontline staff will undoubtedly become less engaged and less productive – and the performance of your business can soon deteriorate.

What can L&D teams do?

You can enhance the effectiveness of your first-line managers in three steps.

1. Tell them what to expect beforehand. Knowing the skills and attributes required by first-line managers can help you identify and select individuals who are better suited to the role. However, you should also create a pool of potential managers from your frontline talent and you should be honest with them about the realities of the role. Tell them exactly what’s involved and let them decide if this is something they want to take on. That way, if they accept the role, they go into it ‘with their eyes open’. Management is not for everyone. You could offer other opportunities to people you want to keep, who don’t want to be managers. For example, a secondment or further development in an area that interests them. This will help to ensure that those who progress to become first-line managers are better prepared and they’ll have a greater chance of succeeding in the role.

2. Address their knowledge, skills and behaviour gaps. Create a modular training programme with a blend of elements including face-to-face workshops on specific topics, such as managing performance, giving feedback, coaching, developing team members, succession planning, resilience and well-being. These workshops should be supported by digital learning assets – such as videos, advice and ‘how to’ guides – that individuals can refer to at the point of need. Simply getting your first-line managers together to network, so they can share experiences and ideas, will be beneficial.

3. Involve their line managers. Their own line managers should be involved in pre-development discussions – to agree objectives – and post-development conversations to help the first-line managers embed their new skills. Coaching and mentoring from senior executives can also be highly beneficial. A key objective in developing first-line managers is to make them feel valued, recognised and appreciated in the organisation. This should primarily come from their line manager.

The benefits

The great advantage of developing your first-line managers is that you’ll achieve proportionally more return on your investment than from developing any other level of staff. That’s because any slight improvement in their performance will have a substantial knock-on effect.

Teams typically fit a 10.80.10 model, in which 10 per cent of the team will be high performers, another 10 per cent will be low performers and the rest will be somewhere in between. The productivity of your high and low performers will be more or less the same, no matter who manages them. But the performance of the bulk of the team, the 80 per cent in the middle, will be highly dependent on the line manager. A skilled, engaging and motivated first-line manager will transform their productivity. They’ll also deal more effectively with cynical or difficult staff, for example those who are consistently late or absent. This is important because if unproductive behaviour isn’t addressed quickly, it can infect the entire team.

If you don’t develop and properly support your first-line managers, you’ll be lucky if their teams achieve 60 per cent of their potential performance. But if first-line managers can encourage their teams to reach 80 per cent, 90 per cent or even 100 per cent of their potential, the impact on your productivity will be significant.

You’ll notice that impact in other areas too. For example, you might see less absenteeism, more ideas and innovation coming through from the frontline and higher rates of customer satisfaction. In competitive markets, the service provided by your frontline employees can majorly differentiate your organisation.

Selecting and developing the right first-line managers not only enables you to recognise and retain your talent, it engages those individuals and gives them the confidence to flourish. What’s more, given that “people don’t leave organisations, they leave managers”, it can have the valuable knock-on effect of enhancing the engagement and retention of your frontline staff, as well as improving their performance and productivity.

Matt McIntyre is head of learning and development at global learning consultancy OnTrack International. For further information please visit 


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