It’s a sad fact that frontline and middle managers generally get the short end of the stick when it comes to management and leadership training. In my own area of coaching, much of the academic literature and social media content is about executive coaching. Coaching is seen as an expensive strategy and is generally applied at executive level.
Professor Daryll Hull from Macquarie University sees it as ironic that leadership education is concentrated at the top of organisations, when it’s the people lower down in the hierarchy who a) are at the coalface of driving productivity and b) need learning and support towards a leadership growth trajectory.
It is ironic that the more senior one becomes the more available leadership education becomes. Daryll Hull
Frontline and middle managers might get an in-house training program on management skills, but in Australia are more likely to rely on a vocational training course such as a Certificate IV in Frontline Management or Diploma of Management. These courses are increasingly online, and whether they translate into effective management and leadership in the workplace is dependent, in my view, on a considerable experiential component. Even tailored in-house training for frontline managers tends to be on a standalone basis, without sustained follow-up. L&D managers usually have a brief of minimising both time off the job and cost when designing programs, even though the resulting knowledge and skills transfer in these one-off interventions is generally low.
What makes a great frontline manager/leader?
Hull did a comprehensive study back in 2003 that identified the qualities of excellent workplace leaders. These qualities included: being a player/coach; fairness; accessibility; empowering people; ethical; not getting in the way of people doing their job; no ambushes; giving recognition where due; building trust; no bullshit; helping in a crisis; being an advocate for the group; honesty; and walking the talk.
These are all important characteristics of frontline managers, and if you think of the best manager you ever had, they probably exhibited a lot of these attributes. Notice that all of these qualities are practical and human in nature. People want human leadership qualities in their manager no matter what their level in the organisation. What is unique to the frontline manager, however, is the ability to directly influence productivity.
The CEO and the operations executives…. may make the big decisions, but the supervisors, coordinators, team leaders and frontline managers are at the sharp end of the game... where leadership meets productivity. Daryll Hull
So how can you support frontline and middle managers in developing great leadership?
I’ve been delivering executive coaching for 16 years. I love the work I do and the great leaders I get to work with, but I’ve always wondered about how effective leadership learning can be delivered right across organisations.
Recently I embarked on a Master of Professional Studies through the University of Southern Queensland. This has given me the opportunity to formally research the efficacy of a leadership approach we have been using for a few years now for frontline managers. I call it hybrid coaching.
Hybrid Coaching: growing leadership on the job
The term hybrid coaching is used in a variety of ways globally, including one quite creative definition I came across recently. In this definition hybrid coaching was seen as a hybrid of coaching and counselling, to be known as ‘couching’. Sounds relaxing, but that, sadly, is not what I’m talking about!
In my company hybrid coaching is an approach to frontline leadership and management that blends individual coaching with on-line learning and work-based action learning over a six-month period. It’s designed to provide the benefits of individual coaching and well as knowledge and skills transfer in a cost-effective framework. In fact it costs no more than the average 2-3 day external training program.
The best learning is often done in situ, and in our program participants do the majority of their learning on the job. Frontline and middle managers can gain immediate feedback through peer-coach, and peer-peer communication, giving them experienced sounding boards for addressing issues and practice improvement. In this way they are able to develop the leadership qualities described by Hull in real time.
Cost effective solution
Learning on the job is obviously good for L&D budgetary considerations. However if we’re looking beyond cost minimisation to look at ROI, it’s worth considering coaching as a vital part of the overall training package. Studies have found that coaching has an accelerative effect on post-training efficacy (Baron and Morin 2010). This means you’ll get a much better ROI on your initial training investment, because people are putting their learning to work.
Coaching your frontline and middle managers definitely supports leadership thinking. A recent Australian study concludes that coaching increases goal attainment, solution-focused thinking, change-readiness, leadership efficacy, resilience, and decreased depression (Grant 2014), so there are a few more attributes to add to the super-charged frontline manager.
Leadership is for everyone
Managers at all levels need leadership development and all companies need leadership training that delivers results. I don’t know the figures for Australia, but in the United States, an estimated $146 billion is spent annually on training, with less than 20% of those training dollars resulting in transfer of learning or directly impacting on company bottom lines. Therefore there is a sound business case for ensuring that training transfer occurs more effectively at every level of the organisation. I believe that incorporating hybrid coaching is a critical part of putting training into action.
Baron, L. & Morin, L. (2010) The impact of executive coaching on self‐efficacy related to management soft‐skills. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 31, 18-38.
Grant, A. M. (2014) The efficacy of executive coaching in times of organisational change. Journal of Change Management, 14, 258-280.
Hull, D. & Read, V. (2003) Simply the best: Workplaces in Australia. ACIRRT Working Paper 88, University of Sydney.
Hull, D. (2014) Productivity push should focus on frontline managers. March 10. The Conversation https://theconversation.com/productivity-push-should-focus-on-frontline-managers-23595