In a Time of Crisis, Front-Line Managers Have Become Leaders. Let’s Keep it That Way.

In a Time of Crisis, Front-Line Managers Have Become Leaders. Let’s Keep it That Way.

Front-line managers have tremendous capacity to lead organizational transformation as well as an incredible willingness to lead during the most stressful and difficult of times. Here are some thoughts on how to make this impact the "new normal."

When the story is eventually written about how we overcame the Coronavirus crisis of 2020, it is quite possible that the true heroes will be the thousands of front-line managers who stepped up to the leadership challenge of transforming their organizations’ work in the blink of an eye.  In a matter of days and weeks, organizations pivoted from in-person to remote work, dramatically expanded health care capacity, shifted to on-line learning, set up new delivery channels and more. And while it was senior executives who laid out the broad parameters of change, it’s been front-line managers who have made it happen.  As a senior executive of a large healthcare system in the New York area told us, “It’s the young ones who are really leading this effort.  It’s the next generation at work!” 

The reality of front-line managers being in the forefront of dramatic transformation has also shattered conventional thinking about how difficult it is to engage these managers. Over many years, leaders and change experts have characterized front-line managers as being the most resistant to change. Consciously or unconsciously, company cultures reinforced the notion that front-line managers were the problem, not the solution.  As Ron reported in the HBR Leader’s Handbook just last year, those first-line managers who did aspire to greater leadership often felt blocked from finding opportunities in their organizations to step up. 

Responding to the coronavirus crisis has changed all that. Senior executives still make big decisions – like moving everyone to remote work, initiating widespread telemedicine or drive-through testing, closing off nursing homes, servicing newly vulnerable populations, or ramping up production of critical materials. But it’s the front-line managers that have had to figure out how to put these policies into practice –in record time and by taking tremendous initiative.   

In the last few weeks, first-line managers have stepped up to devise innovative new processes, motivate stressed and anxious co-workers, coordinate with other functions, make adjustments on the fly, and essentially operate at the highest levels of true leadership. For example, in a global manufacturing company that had to keep producing critical parts for the medical supply chain, every facility had to make the case that they were an “essential” business.  But as the global head of HR told us, “Every country had different requirements, and we couldn’t really provide any help from the corporate office. So, with no one to turn to, first-line managers just figured it out.  They jumped through all sorts of hoops to keep the business going.  It was incredible.”   In another company, front-line managers across IT, operations, HR, and Business units created, tested and “went live” in less than a week with a virtual network that allowed all 1000 staff to work at home.  This, in an organization that had no tradition of working from home and, like thousands of others, was struggling to build cross-functional teamwork in the midst of a major systems upgrade.

In talking with these and many other managers over the past few weeks, we have seen this impressive step-up in leadership time after time.  For example, a field HR manager in Italy who had never distinguished himself before suddenly emerged, according to his business leader, as “decisive, energetic, and connected to the teams in exceptional ways.”   A claims team leader volunteered to stay at work processing and sending out payments to customers and became fully cross-trained to do so, days ahead of the question from the CEO of “how will we keep making payments if we all have to work from home” And in a research organization that had to close its laboratories, the team leaders devised a series of assignments that the scientists could do from their homes (literature searches, paper reviews, planning for experiments) so that the projects could still move forward.

The takeaway from these examples is that front-line managers have tremendous capacity to lead organizational transformation as well as an incredible willingness to lead during the most stressful and difficult of times.  

The question for all front-line managers is how to make this transformational impact your “new normal”, not just for the duration of the crisis but in its aftermath as well.  Based on our experience, three things may be helpful to keep in mind as you aim to do so:

First … Focus on connecting with people (and not on controlling them).  It has been striking how managers have focused over the last few weeks on the welfare of each and every member of their team (as well as of their families). The impact of this caring for and taking care of each other has energized organizations in ways that would have seemed impossible just a month ago. 

Second … Keep going after unreasonable but essential results.  As you’ve done in the crisis, set stretch goals that no one would deem possible, but that are vitally important to achieve.  Rally your team and others to tackle these in the same sort of fast cycle, highly creative approach that has been so essential to success in the past few weeks.  

Finally … Don’t wait for another crisis, or for a big assignment from the senior team to act like a leader. Continue taking initiative and translating broad strategies into tangible actions.  You’ve already proven that you can lead.  Now the challenge is to keep building your leadership “muscles” by tackling additional challenges that really matter.  

With this kind of focus, the second part of the story of the response to the Coronavirus crisis may well be how front-line managers created an entirely new paradigm for leadership, one where they are not resisters, but their organization’s strongest champions of change. 

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