It's Time to Rethink and Redesign Frontline Managers

by Jean Marie Johnson

As professionals who are passionately committed to developing people in ways that matter, we were quite intrigued by a recent study about frontline managers. Below you’ll find the results of the research, along with a few of our own observations about the challenges and possibilities facing frontline managers today.

The Big Picture

In the third quarter of 2009, McKinsey Quarterly surveyed over 1600 senior leaders, nonexecutive managers and employees to explore the role and development of frontline managers.*  A troubling finding emerged: almost 70% of senior executives are either "somewhat" or "not at all" satisfied with the performance of these key contributors.  But that’s not all.  A whopping 81% of front line managers reported being unsatisfied with their own performance. How’s that for disturbing common ground!

And yet, we were not surprised. We speak with countless frontline managers who express a consistent frustration about the tasks they are assigned and the near impossibility of focusing on value-added activities. For many managers, the raw reality is that coaching, people development and an eye to continuously improving quality get scarce attention. These managers are weary and more than a little frustrated; they want to do better! The McKinsey survey uncovered three key systemic reasons for their underperformance and highlighted how a small minority are getting it right.  But first, the key findings:

Role Definition/Job Design: You Get What You Ask For

Respondents indicated the primary focus of frontline managers was as follows:

  • Firefighter (36%)

  • Auditor (27%)

  • Micro-manager (23%)

  • Coach (11%) 

Clearly, current job design emphasizes "performing assigned tasks, identifying and fixing problems, and successfully confronting unexpected, everyday challenges or crises as they arise." In other words, the role itself is not designed to deliver the most value. Instead, these frontline managers are ping-ponging from one thing to another and are bogged down with administrative tasks and paperwork.  They have little time to build the capability--and therefore the contribution-- of others.

Insufficient Training

Compounding the problem is the fact that in the companies surveyed, front line employees receive the most training of all employee groups (27%), while their immediate managers receive the least (9%). And yet, many of these managers may have had little or no experience leading others. It is safe to surmise that many occupy the rarified status of manager because they were great performers on the frontline.

Lack of Awareness

Besides the lack of both time and training, there is another factor, not to be overlooked. The survey also revealed that senior executives are out of touch with the realities of the front-line managers’ jobs. Only 36% of senior executives regarded time spent on administrative tasks as the biggest barrier to improved effectiveness. In our sessions with organization leaders, we often find that they have limited understanding of the day-to-day realities of this role.

And there’s more…

A survey conducted just a few months earlier and related in an article entitled "Unlocking the Potential of Frontline Managers"** made the astute observation that frontline managers "direct as much as two-thirds of the workforce and are responsible for the part of the company that typically defines the customer experience. Yet most of the time, these managers operate as cogs in a system, with limited flexibility in decision making and little room for creativity."

The article cites that "Across industries, frontline managers generally spend only 10 to 40 percent of their time actively supervising their employees." And more specifically, "Of the time district managers spend managing the frontline environment, they devote as little as ten minutes a day to coaching teams." The conclusion reached by the authors? Minimize the meetings, the administrative paperwork and the distractions.  Instead, focus frontline managers on where they can add the most value: "coaching their employees and… constantly improving quality." Indeed….

How the Few are "Getting it Right"

But don’t despair, as there are some companies who have not fallen into the firefighter/auditor/micro-manager trap. At the 11% of companies where the primary role of the frontline manager is to coach and develop others, an entirely different picture emerges.  Here, executives are more satisfied with the performance of these managers and training takes on a very different emphasis. 

At these companies, leadership, interpersonal and customer service skills are the focus of the frontline manager’s development. Here, training focuses on people development and interaction, not task or technical skills. What’s more, executives recognize the barrier that administrative tasks represent to enhancing the contribution of frontline managers. These companies can act as models for all of us as they steer the role of these managers to developing others so that they can in turn deliver on the customer experience and the bottom line.

McKinsey’s Insights

McKinsey concluded that companies have the opportunity to enhance the effectiveness and contribution of their frontline managers. In other words, don’t blame the managers. Their recommendations are strategic, practical and responsive.  And they are rooted in the way companies view and therefore, design the job. Specifically, they suggest that companies begin by:

  • Rethinking the job’s design: redesign the responsibilities and expectations to focus on anticipating problems and coaching direct reports

  • Providing more hours of training as well as emphasizing training that develops interpersonal and leadership skills

  • Enhancing senior executives’ understanding of current role restraints; encourage these same executives to "model the behavior they expect from frontline management."

We couldn’t agree more.

*McKinsey Quarterly conducted the survey in August 2009 and received 1,674 responses, with 46% representing senior leaders, 36% nonexecutive managers and employees, and the rest a mix of academics and consultants.

**August 2009• Aaron De Smet, Monica McGurk, and Marc Vinson

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.

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