How did we forget frontline leaders?

Article authors:

Frontline managers and team leaders are the people that get things done. Senior leaders may be the people who set the direction of the company and motivate from above, but they are rarely in the trenches handling difficult conversations with poor performers and coaching individual employees. This is not to belittle the role of the senior leader. But when 60% of frontline managers claim to have never received any training before stepping into a leadership role (Centre for Creative Leadership, 2014), it makes me wonder: why aren’t more resources devoted here?

There is a good argument for focusing on executives and senior management. The impact of a senior leader dwarfs that of a frontline leader as they oversee a much larger amount of work. However, frontline leadership, when aggregated to the company level, is just as important as senior leadership.

In fact, as economic volatility increases, frontline leadership capability can have a greater impact on business outcomes than senior leadership.

How? The role of frontline leaders and employees has changed (Hamel, Gary & Breen, Bill, 2007). The traditional approach to management focused on senior leaders as strategymakers and middle and frontline leaders as executers. The executive board of an organisation was the brain and the lower levels were the outer limbs. However, as the focus shifted from efficiency to responding to customer needs and driving disruptive innovation this metaphor became less relevant. Think about it: Uber isn’t a more efficient taxi service, it’s an entirely different business model that offers an alternative solution to the customer need. As a result, organisations need to be dynamic ecosystems, not military structures, that respond autonomously to threats and changes and communicate swiftly across business units. Leadership then becomes important at every level to mediate communication across the organisation. In this kind of system, discretionary effort is the new Holy Grail. Although Six Sigma can reduce the chances of a product defect to one in 3.4 million, it can’t tell you exactly why your products aren’t selling nor get your employees to go above and beyond.

A large organisation could have as many as 20,000 frontline managers who would typically make up 50-60% of all managers and directly supervise up to 80% of the entire workforce (Hassan, 2011). They have the most direct connection to frontline employees and have a huge impact on engagement, retention and performance. Highly capable frontline leaders drive better customer/client experiences, higher productivity and, ultimately, increased profitability. These may seem like bold claims, but they are supported by research (Liaw, Chi & Chuang, 2009; Purcell, & Hutchinson, 2007). Furthermore, organisations can test these things themselves. Advances in workforce data and analytics allow for real-time measures of engagement and performance. Comparisons of different teams over time can provide insights into which teams are performing better than others. This can lead to actionable insights that illustrate the likely cause and the best way forward. This is the advantage of frontline leaders: there are more of them, which facilitates more measurement and a data-driven approach.

But I haven’t answered my question. Bersin by Deloitte (2014) found that organisations spend around twice as much on mid-level managers and two to five times more on senior leaders. Why aren’t more resources devoted here? I would argue that it comes down to cost. The sheer number of frontline leaders compared to senior leader makes it more expensive to implement effective training programs that drive business outcomes at that level. This means a more significant investment and substantially more risk. As most organisations are risk-averse, it becomes a decidedly uncomfortable prospect.

So, large organisations often fail to roll out effective frontline leadership programs and opt for cheaper alternatives instead. The business case for a more robust program may be stronger, but training ROI is a notion that is intimidating to many. A small investment that fails to deliver returns is often preferable to a large investment that offers the prospect in sizeable benefits. For many organisations, spending less is often much more psychologically comforting than spending right.

This is not to say that companies are doing nothing. During our conversations, we found that many organisations actively encourage employees to put their hand up for training as they see fit. This is a great component of any employee value proposition: companies should help employees reach their own developmental goals. It helps the organisation build its employer profile and retain top talent. However, frontline managers that lack leadership skills tend to be overworked as they often find themselves picking up the slack of an underperforming team. A leadership course, although a solution to the problem in the long-term, may be viewed as a disruption in the short-term. Furthermore, inexperienced managers may not opt for the right courses. Many leaders will focus on developing technical expertise to be better able to do more themselves, rather than learning to motivate, inspire and, importantly, delegate effectively. A better approach is to analyse workforce analytics and identify capability gaps. What are the key outcomes you want from your frontline employees? How can you develop leaders at the frontline to achieve this?

So, what does this all mean? Simply put, the rules of the game have changed.

Change is occurring so rapidly that success is defined as the players who can respond quickly to new information and drive change successfully. This requires communication across an organisation, a culture of innovation and an engaged workforce. The frontline is, in many ways, a new frontier where organisations can change the way they respond to the environment. Leadership at the frontline is a competitive advantage that leads to a more profitable, agile organisation.

Frontline managers are no longer the limbs of an organisation but the entire muscular-skeletal system. The organisations with frontline leadership capability won’t just outrun the pack in the sprints: they’ll win the long game too.



The Centre for Creative Leadership (2014). Understanding the Leadership Challenges of First-Time Managers: Strengthening Your Leadership Pipeline [White paper]. Last accessed from:

BERSIN by Deloitte (2014). Leadership Development Factbook 2014: Benchmarks and Trends in U. S. leadership Development [White Paper].

Hamel, G. & Breen, B. (2007).  The Future of Management, Harvard Business School Press.

Hassan, F. (2011). The Frontline Advantage. Harvard Business Review, 89(5), 106.

Liaw, Y. J., Chi, N. W., & Chuang, A. (2010). Examining the mechanisms linking transformational leadership, employee customer orientation, and service performance: The mediating roles of perceived supervisor and coworker support. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25(3), 477-492.

Neilson, G. L., & Wulf, J. (2012). How many direct reports? Harvard Business Review, last accessed from:

Purcell, J. and Hutchinson, S. (2007), Front-line managers as agents in the HRM-performance causal chain: theory, analysis and evidence. Human Resource Management Journal, 17: 3–20. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-8583.2007.00022.x

One Response to “How did we forget frontline leaders?”

  1. Should female millennials be the new focus for leadership development?

    […] dealing with difficult customers and managing difficult employees, and yet (according to another recent article published on the Centre for Workplace Leadership Blog) organisations are investing up to five times […]


Leave a Reply