First line managers – are they managing?

First line managers are more important than executive teams.

Well, certainly in terms of numbers.  One manufacturing company we are working with worked out that 95% of their employees are directly managed by first line managers.  Yet more time, interest and money is typically devoted to the skills of senior leaders.

I think that first line managers are struggling to lead their teams more now than at any time in the last 30 or so years.  We are carrying out research to test out what is happening in business today – but here I share what I think the issues are as a starting point.  I would really welcome wider views on this and please would you encourage your first line managers to take our survey

1. Management leap

Managers have always struggled with that leap from ‘doing’ to ‘leading’.  Very few organisations have great training to help them through this period of change and to help them see how they should spend their time (differently) and what they are meant to achieve.
I think managers tend to like and feel valued in their ‘doing’ roles so they hang on to this – justifying it because others ‘don’t do the job as well as I do’ or because they need to fire-fight.  It takes time to trust others to do your old job well – or even better – than you did.

2. Rapid change has brought more pressures

But I think the role of managers has become far more pressured since 2007, when the recession first hit us.

The biggest change has been the pace of change.  To survive the recession, companies had to reinvent, reshape, reduce, innovate all at unheard-of speed.  Social media and digital means that you win business in new ways – and when you think that Twitter is just ten years old, you realise the speed of learning that has been needed.

We are all having to cope with globalisation, technology, Brexit – to name a few.

3. Four generation workforce

While the three or four generation workforce has been recognised and discussed, few have the answers to what this means in terms of management.

A simple example is the difference in job expectations and how this impacts attitudes to work.  Many companies still have a handful of older employees with gold-plated pensions and looking to a comfortable retirement – managers we meet regularly say how hard they find this population to motivate and engage.

Compare this to millennials who are capable, used to working at speed but can’t see their way to owning their own homes – you have very different personal circumstances and expectations to manage.

4. Structural changes are not keeping up

Organisations are flatter than ever these days.  While in theory that sounds a good thing, the reality is that managers are now expected to manage a team of 17 in the same way as they used to manage just seven – and that is just not possible.

People and roles have been taken out, but few organisations have been fundamentally redesigned.
First line managers are the first level of managers taking responsibility for others.  The ‘real work’ gets done through these managers.  Yet too often they are under-valued and not given the skills and support to do the brilliant job they are capable of.

I remember working with one group of first line managers – some old hands, some newly appointed – and the first hour or two was spent discussing how there wasn’t the time to do everything they needed.  As we worked through the week long programme, the managers realised the switch they needed to achieve – from doing tasks to leading and supporting others to do these tasks.  By the end of the week, the general view was that they had freed up a day and a half of time – which they could now spend thinking, planning and leading.

Do these issues resonate with you?  Or do you think there are different issues – or none at all?!  Please do share your thoughts.