Productivity push should focus on frontline managers

Why do company leaders get a different level of training to frontline managers? www.shutterstock.com

Australia has more than two million registered businesses, and at least equally that number of actual places of work. These range from one and two person workplaces to groups of 100 people plus. These work places are the front line in the productivity debate.

The CEO and the operations executives of these businesses may make the big decisions, but the supervisors, coordinators, team leaders and frontline managers are at the sharp end of the game. The face-to-face connection between supervisors and line operators, office workers, nurses, truck drivers, shop assistants and a thousand other occupations is where leadership meets productivity.

It is therefore interesting that in most discussions when “workplace leadership and productivity” is raised we find hundreds of contributions about professional development, mentoring, coaching, and executive courses as they relate to senior managers, engineers, CEOs, and other top line occupations. Learning, education and expensive behavioural “high performance” programs tend to dominate the conversation. Frontline managers are usually relegated to vocational training programs - perhaps a Certificate 4 in Front Line Management if they are lucky.

Management and leadership are equally important

There is nothing wrong with vocational training, by the way. It produces competencies and assessments based on national content and common “packages” that deliver the goods to students via Registered Training Organisations. The question is: why put workplace management and workplace leadership into different categories? Executives head off to universities or overseas programs to learn about workplace leadership. Supervisors usually get to go to TAFE and learn about time management.

More importantly, this simplistic view of leadership as an optional adjunct to supervision, and leadership as a core capability for senior managers, misses the point about productivity in the workplace.

We can talk about labour productivity as a factor in national economic matters, but it’s only when we drill down into actual workplaces that we see the basic truth: improved productivity in Australian workplaces is the outcome of the quality of working relationships on the job - where people actually work.

Those relationships are shaped in part by the capacity of the workplace leader or supervisor to maintain and deepen the quality of the connections between people.

In 2003 the Business Council of Australia commissioned field research conducted by myself and a colleague to actually ask people on the job what they thought were the key characteristics of good workplace leadership. Since that research was published it has been affirmed by other academics, and by managers around in the country.

What makes a good leader?

There are clear qualities of an excellent workplace leader. They are (in no apparent order and in the words of people on the job): being a player/coach, fairness, accessibility, empowering people, ethical, not getting in the way of people, no ambushes, giving recognition where due, building trust, no bullshit, helping in a crisis, being “out there” for the group, honesty, and “walking the talk”.

Now it’s likely that academic commentators will pounce on these descriptors and label them as “broad and ill-defined attributes”. It simply doesn’t matter how you categorise them. What we have as far back as 2003 (and possibly earlier if we include the 1995 Karpin Report and work undertaken by Telstra on cultural factors in workplace productivity in the mid 1990s) is a vivid picture of workplace leadership as seen by the people who show up for work every day. This is where the discussion must start about leadership and productivity in Australia.

Vocational training and a few short courses at TAFE does not cut it for front line managers. Companies and public service agencies should invest in their workplace leaders with the same intensity and commitment they usually give the more highly paid managers in their organisations. It is ironic that the more senior one becomes the more available leadership education becomes. Funding for such education seems a logical “investment” in the business, while funding for front line management education often seems to be a “cost” to the business.

Leadership on the job requires business to take the same care and attention to selection, recruitment and education as they do for the senior positions in a business. The frontline leaders are the cutting edge of any operation. They are usually the first to appreciate when things are going well, and when they are going wrong. Their intervention on the job can save a situation, or make it worse. They can lead groups to excellence, or drive them to desperation. They can keep a business alive, or bring it to its knees.

The Telstra cultural imprint studies (see the Industry and Business Skills Council - IBSA - for a summary report and recent update) in the 1990s implied that there are three kinds of frontline managers in Australian places of work: leaders, bosses and bastards. Leaders at this level are few and far between, there are many bosses (good ones and bad ones); and way too many bastards. Good bosses can become great workplace leaders if they are encouraged and educated. Unfortunately bad bosses are often left to become bastards, and once a bastard - always a bastard!

We can do better. We just need to focus on actual workplace leadership, not just on executive and professional development.