The Crucial Importance and Complex Challenge of Developing Operational Front Line Managers

by Brian Lawson

We know that the performance of operational front line managers in any organisation is crucial to sustainable success yet it is so difficult to achieve. I have been working to develop, train, coach and support first line managers for over 20 years. In this blog I explore the reasons why and what can be done about it.

Why are operational front line managers so important? Three key reasons:

1. Their place in the organisation:

In system thinking terms this is where ‘the rubber hits the road’. The role of the operational front line manager is pivotal – is it the place in the organisation where the reality of the world the organisation work in meets the aspirations the organisation has to impact on that world in terms of its vision and strategy.

2. What they know and who they know:

Front line managers are often the most connected and networked parts of an organisational system and often have rich veins of knowledge, date and information which are crucial for the future development and focus of the organisation. Organisations often fail to harvest and utilise this knowledge and experience in reacting and responding to change and in redesigning their services.

3. How they experience the rest of the organisation:

The inbox of the organisation front line manager is where you can find out whether the rest of the organisation has a coherent approach to supporting the key activities of the organisation – how joined up are Finance, HR and ICT in delivering to the front line? You can also see it in their diaries. How much freedom to respond do they have or is it ‘death by meeting’ as their diaries are crammed from the beginning to end of each day?

Why is it so difficult to develop managers? One crucial reason: CONTINUOUS COMPETING DEMANDS on TIME.

As Henry Mintzberg (1990) points out in his classic paper ‘The Managers Job: Folklore and Fact, the “scarcest resource managers have to allocate is their own time”.

“The facts of management are that managers work at an unrelenting pace and that their activities are characterised by brevity, variety and discontinuity. They are strongly oriented to action and dislike reflective activities”

Mintzberg (1990) p3.

In the courses I run for operational front line managers, I see this all the while, particularly if they are operating in an environment characterised by risk and uncertainty. It is not unusual for managers in these environments to have no space and time at all – they are followed to the toilet, their meetings are interrupted by crises, their inbox is full and growing and people are waiting for calls to be returned and then there are the demands of the rest of the organisation for those reports and responses by the end of each day.

What are the risks and consequences for the managers themselves and for their organisations?:

1. Developing a reactive urgent mind-set and culture:

Firstly this impacts on medium and longer term performance. Operational front line managers completely lose control of their time and just respond to what’s in front of them. This means that more of the important tasks of management such as responding to change, developing people and keeping an eye on performance get done in the margins of the day to day maelstrom of activities and tasks. This means that contemporary knowledge and best practice never gets into operational delivery as managers are too busy even to be aware how far behind they are. Secondly overwhelmed operational first line managers find it impossible to contain the demands on their teams and the distracted anxiety of an overwhelmed manager begins to impact on the culture of their team and individuals within it and current performance begins to slide.

2. The isolation of managers:

Busy managers, overwhelmed by the demands of the job become isolated from their peers and many only see them in highly operational meetings with long agendas and little time to connect. This increases the stress of individual managers and often means that small problems are not fixed and they then have big impacts on efficiency. On my programmes it is not unusual for managers in the same office to say they never have time for even a cup of tea together. They often describe having to work complex inefficient processes together as there is no time to fix them. This includes simple things like bringing together in one file on the system all the material required to run a common process. It is not uncommon for managers and workers to be wasting time on a daily basis simply because the material required to run a process is dispersed across a system often hidden in the remote reaches of sub files.

Other issues which impact on the effectiveness of our operational front line managers:

1. The impact of being a responsibility magnet:

Operational front line managers have a strong desire to get on with things. Almost all of the managers I have worked with have shared one common characteristic in that they are prepared to take responsibility and be accountable for work done ‘on their watch’. However this ‘can do’ activity often translates into a belief and an associated practice that ‘it’s quicker to do it myself’. This results in the manager becoming a responsibility magnet and taking too much work on for themselves which their workers should be doing. Busy managers commonly fail to delegate.

2. Contested decision making environments:

Barry Oshry (1995) describes operational front line managers as being in the middle of a system which creates competing demands complex accountabilities and torn loyalties. In this environment it is often very difficult for managers to retain the independence and creativity of thought and action to respond imaginatively and with a degree of independence to the situations they encounter. In a strongly hierarchical organisation this ability is impaired further by command and control structures which limit action and then blame operational front line managers for getting it wrong. This can result in a decision paralysis throughout an organisation where fear of failure rather than doing the right thing drive behaviour of managers.

So what can we do about it? Developing, coaching and communities of practice in the systems we actually work in.

I always work with managers working in the system they are responsible for, usually as a result of some perceived failure, need to change or transform. The development programmes I run for operational front line managers are usually part of a wider programme of improvement, change or transformation. I have developed two approaches in these circumstances:

1. Developing managers as part of a community of practice:

Over time I have created a three day programme which offers support, development and challenge and can be delivered in the pressured environment the organisation finds itself in. The course usually runs a day a fortnight over 6 weeks with a cohort of up to 20 managers who have a mutual dependence on each other to deliver effective services. Within this programme I explicitly seek to build what Etienne Wenger (2002) describes as a ‘community of practice’. This involves working through conflict and disagreement on the programme to enable managers to develop a shared identity which improves performance and facilitates the rapid sharing and exchange of knowledge. One of the regular outcomes of this programme is that the managers repertoire, capability and capacity to run the system they are responsible for is significantly enhanced.

2. Coaching:

Along with the programmes I also offer individual coaching to managers which supports them in taking back control of their diaries and email to give them more time to focus on the developmental aspects of their role. As a rule of thumb I would aim to reduce the average managers meeting commitments by about 30% and to significantly reduce the demands made by email.

A link to the management programme can be found here. If you would like more details about our coaching offer please click here Operational Team Manager Programme.


Henry Mintzberg: The Managers Job, 1975

Barry Oshry: Seeing Systems, 1995

Etienne Wenger: Cultivating Communities of Practice, 2002