Strong frontline supervisors remove friction, solve problems and build solid teams. Here’s how to create great leaders.
Between the 1950s and the ’80s, there was a common trope in television and movies – quicksand. It was in The Princess Bride, The Never Ending Story, The Lone Ranger, even The Smurfs. Quicksand represented the inevitability of death and oblivion. Of course, in the movies, they find a way to escape and, in the end, the good guy wins. But that’s movie fantasy, not reality.
There is a mistake that happens over and over in small and large businesses and organizations that results in a type of organizational quicksand, a place where all goals and efforts go to die. When organizations neglect the development and support of their frontline supervisors, those supervisors become organizational quicksand.
Recently, there was a medium-size company with about 300 employees that had developed a new vision and mission. The leadership team did great work. It was a realistic vision and mission that would drive meaningful growth and profit margin. It would require the implementation of a couple of new systems and tools.
The leaders of that organization did everything necessary to set their organization up for success — except for one important step. They failed to include training for their frontline supervisors. They expected that sending a memo saying “Use the new tools” with some instructions attached would be enough. It wasn’t.
After the new tools started arriving and the new systems went live, the frontline supervisors were confused and frustrated. They were often heard saying:
• “What’s wrong with the way we are already doing things?”
• “Upper management doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
• “This will never work!”
• “What even is this stuff. No one told us about it. I don’t even know what to do with it.”
It didn’t matter what the executives did from that point forward. Every effort to push the new tools and systems into use died at the frontline supervisor level. The frontline supervisors, instead, were telling the frontline employees to do things the old way. Those who tried to fall in line with the systems and tools struggled greatly. They made mistakes, lost product, missed deliverable deadlines, and gave feedback to upper management that the new systems and tools “didn’t work.”
The vision, mission, systems, and tools were truly good changes. They had a proven track record in competitors’ businesses. But this organization’s group of about 20 frontline supervisors didn’t know how to support the frontline workers in adopting the new way of doing things, so they didn’t — they became organizational quicksand.
Eventually, the organization put a pause on the change and started over. I worked with them to create a new plan for implementation. In order to create success, we:
• included a frontline supervisor training session with the system vendor before the rollout;
• ran a leadership development training session for their frontline supervisors focused on change management;
• ran a training session on interpersonal communications for the frontline supervisors;
• added a weekly accountability meeting for the frontline supervisors to discuss wins and challenges;
• rolled the change out more slowly, so that successes from previous teams would provide evidence to successive teams;
• added a weekly newsletter calling out successes with the new systems and tools, specifically, successes earned by frontline supervisors and workers; and
• branded this organizational change as a story about the frontline supervisors and workers, the success brought on by the change would be their success.
Google did a study called “Project Oxygen” (Harrell, Barbato, re:Work, “Great Managers Still Matter” February 2018) that found that supervisors are the source of trust or distrust within the totality of a team. That trust or distrust is the prime driver of productivity.
Plans, visions, missions, strategy … those are all well and good, but they’re not where the rubber meets the road. The frontline workers produce the results. The frontline workers report to the frontline supervisors. If the frontline supervisors of your organization are weak leaders, they will be like organizational quicksand. But strong frontline supervisors remove friction, they solve problems you’ll never even hear about, they build great teams. The frontline supervisor is truly the pivotal position of your organization, they turn ideas and plans into action and results. Build great frontline supervisors, and success becomes much easier.
Derek Pangelinan owns Derek Rey Consulting LLC. He is a management/leadership coach for small and medium business owners in Oregon and Southwest Washington, and runs a variety of workshops to help them build their teams and improve communication and commitment in the workplace.