Front line leader/ Leader capability/ Leader development/ Manufacturing

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series of articles where I share the insights I’ve gained from talking with people from across the manufacturing sector, about the capabilities needed to drive what my consultancy terms Strategy Execution Power.  My focus here is upon the leaders at the heart of most of these manufacturing organisations, the Front Line Leaders. Part 1 described the perfect storm building around sluggish market growth, increasing performance pressure and the speed of change this sector is experiencing, combined with a lack of investment in this critical group of leaders who often lead 80% of the workforce.  

A well-researched piece in Harvard Business Review back in 2015 about 'why strategy execution unravels' found that in large, complex organisations, execution lives and dies with a group the author called "distributed leaders", which includes not only middle managers but also technical and domain experts who occupy key spots in the informal networks that get things done. So in this article I describe the five capabilities needed in these employees’ Front Line Leaders', which our experience shows are crucial for connecting an organisation’s strategy with successful execution on the ground; communicating to engage, being a role model, leading high performing teams, growing their team’s capacity for change, and exercising value-based leadership.    

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Supporting individual performance

One of the most common challenges we hear from Front Line Leaders we work with is ‘How do I motivate someone who is different from me?’ The first two capabilities ‘communicating to engage’ and ‘being a role model’ combine to enable these leaders to handle this challenge. Valuing the diversity within their team and understanding how to communicate and motivate on an individual level rather than taking a cookie-cutter approach, to leveraging this diversity, is a key capability for building trust. And of course we know from Stephen Covey’s famous book, Speed of Trust, that there is a consistently strong correlation between higher levels of organisational execution and higher levels of trust.

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The first capability, ‘communicating to engage’, is as simple and as complex as Front Line Leaders understanding their own leadership style, how they impact their team and what they need to do, in order to tailor their approach and drive engagement in each individual. This is particularly pertinent for their younger team members. Deloitte’s annual millennial survey collates the views of 8,000 millennials from across 30 countries, and the latest results shows that this relatively new element of a Front Line Leader’s team are more comfortable with plain straight-talking language, respond to passionate opinions, and identify with leaders who appeal to anyone who might feel “left out” or isolated.  The second capability, ‘being a role model’, focuses on extending this individual approach to how Front Line Leaders develop their teams and match their employees’ specific development needs and wants to the results their organisations require. This includes role modelling learning in the workplace for their employees, both in terms of encouraging their team to learn as individuals and to support the learning of their team colleagues.

Supporting team performance

The third and fourth capabilities needed by Front Line Leaders, ‘leading high performing teams’ and ‘growing a team’s capacity for change’ together focus on the team as a whole, and very much support another aspect of the transition a Front Line Leader makes when they progress from being an individual contributor. When I recently discussed this transition with a senior manufacturing leader, he put it in a nutshell by describing how he usually found that it was the Front Line Leader with their head in the machine trying to fix any stoppage, and their team standing around looking on. Thereby that leader sustains their team’s operational dependence upon them to be that ‘technical expert’ and team problem-solver. To combat this understandable urge to personally fix such problems, Front Line Leaders need to redirect their energy to developing their team’s technical expertise, problem-solving skills and team-working behaviours, in order to build a high performing team that has the capacity and capability to handle the ever-increasing demands to change and improve at ever-increasing speed.

We are often asked by Front Line Leaders ‘How do I handle the increasing frequency of change for my team, when I have to do so much follow-up to get any changes to stick?’  Our answer is two-fold, firstly deal with the barriers to motivation, such as a belief that ‘change equals job losses’, through engagement and involvement.  Secondly, find, understand and provide the answer to the question ‘why?’  This is often the most challenging thing for Front Line Leaders to do – to manage upwards to their leaders to ensure they are in turn provided with this information. To successfully apply these capabilities, Front Line Leaders need to make that transition from knowing what is going on with the technical details of a problem, improvement or change, to noticing what is going on between the people in their team when problems need solving, improvements need implementing or change needs embedding.  

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Values-based leadership

I described in Part 1 of this series, that the transition to Front Line Leader is well researched by Charan, Drotter and Noel. A key characteristic they describe is a desire for newly-promoted Front Line Leaders to keep doing the activities that made them successful as individual operators. This can result in their failure to make the value-based transition needed for success. And it is this values-based shift which is especially difficult; to value the managerial work of making others productive by making time for others, planning, coaching, and developing a high performing team. Whatever your organisation’s values, these Front Line Leaders must be able to translate them into their daily operations as a leader, not just as an employee. So if these individuals have not received any support in doing this as individual contributors, it is even more critical that they receive such support at their transition.

And this is where the rubber hits the road, in terms of these Front Line Leaders having the confidence, the permission, and the attitude, to consider this a fundamental  and value-adding part of their new role. These Front Line Leaders can have the best communication and engagement skills, an ability to observe their team dynamics, a thorough understanding of change management theory and tools, but if they do not understand and value the link between their organisation’s values, the role their own personal values and behaviours have in bringing those organisational values to life, and the return on investing their time in such things, then your strategy execution will be sub-optimal. 

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Sustaining strategy execution
One of the barriers to Front Line Leaders making a values-based shift is that often, they do not have such a role model in their own leader. In the third article of this series, I’ll talk about how those middle managers who lead Front Line Leaders play a key role in sustaining the Strategy Execution Power of Front Line Leaders, by being learning leaders and supporting their Front Line Leaders to convert their organisation’s strategies into operational execution. I’ll also describe HR’s role in supporting a learning leader culture and using a train-the-trainer approach for scalability and sustainability of strategy execution.