Why the Frontline Needs Accomplished Leaders
Joe White, director of Mobile, Ala.-based AEU LEAD, says companies need the “input, involvement and leadership” of front-line supervisors to be successful.
A few years ago, Joe White was conducting a workshop for a U.S client. White’s business provides leadership training for front-line supervisors at companies in various labor-intensive industries, from manufacturing to construction to this company’s niche, cargo handling.
During the workshop, White was introduced to one of the company’s front-line supervisors, who had been recently promoted to the position. White, director of Mobile, Ala.-based AEU LEAD, couldn’t help but notice the man’s herculean build.
“His biceps were bigger than my thighs,” White recalls.
But during the workshop, White was told by another employee at the company that the front-line supervisor hadn’t always appeared so imposing. In fact, it wasn’t until he was promoted to his new position that he began to train and bulk up like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
White was told the man felt like he needed to change his appearance to make sure the people now reporting to him knew he was the person in charge. So he began lifting weights and put on several pounds of muscle to appear more daunting, figuring the people he was supervising would respond to his new pumped-up physique.
“He felt like he needed to have an enforcer look,” White says.
Talk about a power play. White tells the story because that’s exactly not how front-line supervisors should be managing their employees these days.
“Those days are gone,” White says of the old-school method of managing by intimidation. “The emerging generations will not respond to that.”
But the problem is that while those days are gone … they aren’t really gone. Many front-line supervisors in labor-intensive industries continue to manage in such ways because they don’t know any other ways to lead. This can set up a dangerous precedent, as front-line supervisors can be “agents of change” within a company’s culture because they are perfectly positioned at the point of interface with employees and even the company’s clients, White says.
Also, too many formal leadership training programs these days are geared toward company executives and higher-level managers and not middle managers. Front-line supervisors often interact with people and need appropriate training to prepare them for the circumstances and challenges they routinely face.
“You simply cannot and will not be successful without their input, involvement and leadership,” White adds. “But the unfortunate reality is that, today, they’re not prepared.”
Relieving Pain Points
Enter AEU LEAD, which was formed in 2015 as part of the loss control division of The American Equity Underwriters, a leading provider of workers’ compensation insurance to the maritime industry, to help companies improve their safety programs. But in doing so, White says AEU LEAD learned that companies needed training with overall front-line management more than they did than for safety. They needed this training for many reasons, including to achieve higher morale, lower turnover and increased productivity.
“Companies struggled to make needed management improvements because supervisors lacked the skills needed to make them,” White adds.
So AEU LEAD shifted its focus to the development of front-line supervisors to specialize in providing supervisors, foremen and lead personnel with the people-oriented skills required for success in such roles.
White refers to the causes of management deficiency as “pain points.” Many times, pain points in labor-intensive companies are rooted in the past but are maintained by modern-day front-line supervisors.
“Look at people born in the 1930s and 1940s. They had a very different mindset,” White says. “They were OK with management telling them what to do and didn’t always need an explanation to why it was important to do something. It was a part of the fabric of that generation.”
But employees these days aren’t always content with just being told what to do. They want to know why they are doing something. It’s not that such employees are being negative or difficult — far from it, they just want to be part of a collaborative process, White stresses. And this is precisely why some companies desperately need to change their front-line management styles, he adds.
Abby Galjour, AEU LEAD’s business development manager, says that while front-line supervisors often lack leadership skills, it’s not always their fault. It’s often the result of companies having employees take on additional responsibilities to reduce headcount. Employees are promoted to front-line supervisors, but they’re provided with no training in dealing with people in their new roles.
“They don’t know how to lead others or coach them,” Galjour says. “And they had no mentors before them.”
Galjour stresses that strong people skills are crucial to improving the process. Supervisors who are skilled communicators are viewed as leaders and influencers, she states.
AEU LEAD teaches the importance of people skills because it is a practical skill, not an abstract one. It’s also a skill that, with repetition and reinforcement, can in time become an automatic behavior.
In essence, AEU LEAD’s program centers on “how” front-line supervisors can become more effective leaders. AEU LEAD creates specific programs for specific front-line supervisors. It’s not a canned, one-size-fits-all training program that rehashes the basic dos and don’ts of leadership. Not only is that not enough, but it’s the wrong approach, White says.
“What we advocate is training supervisors to their unique needs as individuals,” White adds.
Progress, Not Perfection
AEU LEAD’s tailored approach is anchored through its creation and implementation of individual action plans, which derive from front-line supervisors undergoing self-assessments at the beginning of a workshop. The plans are created by the participant for the participant. Front-line managers have to see for themselves where they need to improve, says Woody Collins, AEU LEAD’s program manager.
“We don’t tell them, ‘This is what you have to work on.’ They figure that out for themselves through the self-assessment,” Collins adds.
With the individual action plans, front-line supervisors are provided the opportunity to identify areas of strength and needed development. The action plans outline steps for front-line supervisors to embrace over time to improve their desired leadership skills.
White notes that too many companies — and for far too long — have relied on chalk-and-talk training practices as a means of conveying important information, with the results of the process being validated through tests that measure recall of knowledge from short-term memory.
“This is the least-effective method for training adults and, unfortunately, is the most commonly used model in practice today,” White notes. “To truly develop resources, you must provide more than information in a classroom setting. Growth occurs when knowledge is applied. Our process provides experience, which allows for a much deeper form of learning. Leadership development is an ongoing journey, and progress always trumps perfection.”
The content that AEU LEAD delivers is designed to be practical, relevant and actionable — not theoretical, White adds.
Collins says it’s vital for a company’s executives to get involved in the entire training process; they must be supportive during and after it. Their support might be holding front-line supervisors accountable for the action plans that have been implemented on their behalves. And the question needs to be asked time and again: Are they making progress?
Galjour assures that positive changes occur when frontline supervisors embrace the training and become more engaged with the people they manage and begin to build rapport with them. Not only does employee morale go up, but worker safety improves. So does efficiency on the production line and the quality of products being manufactured, not to mention employee retention because people begin to enjoy their jobs more.
“Everything improves,” Galjour emphasizes.
AEU LEAD’s work is not complete after the initial training. White, Galjour and Collins return periodically to the companies they train to ensure progress — to discuss successes, failures and areas that need attention. White believes the training program, when all is said and done, can provide “absolute, objective, quantifiable return on investment.”
A few years ago, White was conducting a workshop at a manufacturing company in Tennessee. During the training, the quality control supervisor at the company told White that she needed to take the time and make the effort to get to know the welders she managed. She recognized that her lack of communication with them was an opportunity for her to improve her people skills. While she was constantly focused on inspection and quality, she had little rapport with the welders.
But as she began to improve her communication with the employees, good things began to happen that had a tremendous impact on the company. The welders began to open up to her, specifically about things directly related to improving the company’s products. For instance, the welders told her that the company’s welding rod storage practices were inferior, something she would’ve never known if she hadn’t improved her rapport with them. As such, the company installed heated storage cabinets for welding rods, and its products improved.
“She was getting meaningful information from them to help them in their jobs,” White says. “It was a win-win-win situation.”
White tells the story because that’s exactly how front-line supervisors should be managing their employees these days. He says the welders were “critical stakeholders” in the process — that is, they provided vital information to improve the process. But that information never would’ve been provided if the quality control supervisor hadn’t improved communication with them and asked the welders for their opinions. And because they were engaged by the supervisor, the welders felt important to the process.
“They felt a sense of belonging,” White adds. “Employees that are engaged are less likely to be involved in injury, and they perform better on the job.”
With technology playing a larger role in labor-intensive industries, there’s more of a risk that employees could feel more isolated. So it’s more important than ever for front-line managers to be involved with them.
“The ability to interact, engage and stay connected is really going to become more important moving forward,” White adds.