Frontline managers play a critical role in almost every business. They influence and inspire workers while promoting executive management’s vision and culture. Employees’ trust in those managers, or lack thereof, can mean the difference between productivity and chaos.
So, why are frontline managers vital? And what traits do they need to succeed?
Katherine Jeffery, CEO of KJ Consulting, and Scott Schwefel, CEO of Discover Yourself, Inc., outlined 10 characteristics good frontline managers possess.
What is a frontline manager?
A frontline manager oversees the daily operations of a business. They often supervise individual contributors and report to middle and executive managers.
Why are frontline managers so crucial? ‘They’re the people who are actually making the organisation flow,’ says Jeffery. ‘They’re carrying out the mission and the vision [of the business] by helping people on the front line do what they need to do.’
Frontline managers are ‘closer to the people that are actually doing the business, or moving the products or delivering the services,’ says Schwefel. This means they’re directly accountable to customers, ‘and the customers are the ultimate judge of whether they’re doing a good job or not.’
Frontline managers are also responsible for effectively conveying executives’ vision for the company culture to their employees. Schwefel says there are two parts to this responsibility.
‘The first is to fully understand and comprehend the message that’s being delivered to them by senior management,’ he explains. The second part is to deliver the message ‘in a way that is unique to each of those individuals.’
As Jeffery puts it, everything a frontline manager does helps communicate the company culture to workers.
10 characteristics of a good frontline manager
Here are ten skills and traits that signify an effective frontline leader.
First and foremost, a frontline manager is responsible for supporting their employees. ‘In today’s world, if you don’t care about your employees, they’re not going to stay around,’ says Jeffery.
According to Schwefel, ‘This is one of the most important traits that a leader can have, especially now versus 50 years ago.’ Back then, managers focused on commanding and controlling employees, he says. Now, it’s on listening, assisting and understanding.
2. Adept at coaching
‘Coaching is a part of leadership,’ says Schwefel. But he also points out that if a leader lacks this skill, partnering with someone who does is an option.
Jeffery describes tailoring a management approach based on the employee’s generation. She avoids even using the word ‘manage’ with millennials and Gen Z. ‘Coaching is what they respond to. It’s the way they like to interact.’
Jeffery and Schwefel agree that self-awareness is an indispensable trait in a frontline manager.
As Jeffery explains, self-awareness is one aspect of emotional IQ. ‘If you’re not aware of your own triggers, the emotions that you’re feeling, and how those emotions have a ripple effect on other people around you, then it’s going to be really hard to lead in today’s world,’ she says.
Schwefel adds, ‘Managers who are not self-aware cannot read the reactions from the people they lead and may or may not understand if their message has been delivered or received or understood.’
For Jeffery, what you focus on is key. ‘Are frontline leaders focused on people? Or just on results? How do they balance those two things so that they’re moving things forward?’
Schwefel believes you can work around a lack of focus. ‘I’m often not very focused in my leadership style, and yet it works,’ he says with a smile.
However, he adds there is a downside. ‘You end up working harder and doing more to cover up for the lack of focus. So when you’ve got it, it’s a benefit.’
5. Strong communicator
Jeffery says that communication includes giving and receiving feedback.
‘If it’s an older person, they probably need less feedback. Younger people need a lot more feedback,’ she explains. Emotional intelligence skills help leaders understand how best to communicate with their teams.
When delivering training to CEOs, Schwefel emphasizes communication. ‘The No. 1 skill set that they need is the ability to communicate with and through other people because nothing gets done without other people.’
Schwefel says, ‘Every organisation is either green and growing or ripe and rotting, and there’s nothing in the middle,’ referencing a quote attributed to McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. Essentially, if you stop focusing on growth, you’ll become stagnant.
A 2023 report from ResumeLab found that 70% of Gen Z workers consider career development more important than a high salary. And 72% said they would quit a job that lacked development opportunities. ‘If the frontline manager doesn’t have a growth mindset,’ says Jeffery, ‘Younger people will ask, ‘Why am I here?’’
Some people naturally have more empathy than others. But Jeffery points out that empathy is a skill that can be improved. She adds that similar to self-awareness, empathy and curiosity are essential components of emotional intelligence.
Some employees need more empathy from their leaders than others. As Schwefel says, ‘There are some people that just want to be told what to do and go do it. Meanwhile, others want to be understood and taken care of and have their feelings shared with those that lead them.’
Jeffery feels that workers will struggle with organisation, efficiency and prioritisation if their leader doesn’t model these skills.
She points out that organisation is crucial for remote workers. A lack of organisation in a leader can make remote workers feel that they don’t have anyone to rely on. ‘If their boss is kind of in and out and all over the place and not organised, that can obviously present issues.’
Schwefel says that being goal-oriented is an excellent characteristic, but only to a certain point. ‘If there’s too much focus on the goal, the journey to get there gets lost,’ he says.
Jeffery says that leaders need to be goal-oriented if they’re going to give their teams an objective to work toward. ‘You not only have to be goal-oriented, but you have to pass that along to your team and then provide accountability to those goals,’ she adds.
10. Effective time management
In addition to managing their own time efficiently, Jeffery says, leaders should ensure they have their team’s buy-in to reach goals by a specific date. If the timeline for an objective feels arbitrary, workers won’t feel invested in meeting it. Jeffery argues that time management comes down to ‘just understanding where you need to be and when.’
Frontline managers are crucial to an organisation’s culture, operations and performance. The more time you can spend finding and training leaders of all levels in your company, the better.
This story first featured on the Vistage Research Centre.
Build a stronger company culture and achieve your business goals with the CEO Blueprint for Success
These leadership lessons from our experts will help you to build trust, drive purpose, improve culture, and foster lasting results as business leader.