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Leading People from the Front Line – The Key to Performance

Many organisations focus and prioritise the rational approach to defining what needs to be done, to what standard and using the whip for non-compliance. Influencing performance involves more emotional engagement, knowing where people are now and what needs to be done to increase energy and commitment. The latter is an outcome focused strategy, and all metrics must reflect this.

Darwin is alleged to have coined the phase “survival of the fittest” and consequently all forms of life evolve to suit their environments, but is that really true? An alternative version could be that species evolve variations and that those which fit best to the environment survive and pass on their genes. Adaptability to the environment is the only long-term success strategy.

In sport and in organisations we try to design and control the environment to get the best from our people individually and collectively. At least we like to think we do. Nobody would ever suggest that performance should not be a priority of management, however, how congruent are our actions with the goal of positively influencing performance? Most managers are better at talking the talk. It would be unfair of course to blame individual managers for this as, generally, they do not receive the education, the necessary competency development, or structured support.

Front Line Management, The Critical Success Factor

Front line management are in the pivotal position to most influence mind-sets and get people to where they need to be to behave and perform in the desired manner. They are best positioned to understand and influence thinking and mood, how people perceive, interpret, and respond to their environments and most importantly, what needs to be done to improve this.

Any organisation that is serious about people and leadership would be ensuring that at least 50% of a front-line managers time is spent in understanding and influencing their team, that this is fully supported by outcome focused goal setting and is what more senior management focus on (reports and meeting agendas).

How an organisation describes and differentiates between leaders, leadership and leading will be reflective of the culture and the resulting attitude of their people.

  • Leader is a noun, the title an individual has.

  • Leadership are the competencies required.

  • Leading is a verb, the act of leading people.

The raison d’etre of the role and the job descriptions should reflect the importance of leading and influencing thinking as this is the determinant of mood, behaviour and performance.

Relationship and Trust

The front-line manager must be the person that provides information and the first port of call for any questions or issues that staff have. They must be perceived to be interested and doing everything within their power, supported by more senior management, to resolve and be seen to resolve issues at this level. They have to display credibility and integrity. Where issues are escalated to higher levels of management and a different resolution is found, it can easily undermine the front-line manager and makes it more difficult for their decisions to be accepted in the future.

Having ongoing conversations with each team member about how they are feeling, what is causing any disaffection or problems they may be experiencing, and identifying what will improve or address the situation is critically important. Focusing on understanding and improving the effectiveness of the working relationship. When a front-line manager is seen to listen and change how they may respond as a consequence of these conversations can improve the confidence in the process and the relationship. Nobody can be good at influencing, if trust is low and relationships are poor.

Setting a goal of improving “trust’” in most cases is more than useless. The term is too broad and to work it needs to be broken down into its key constituent elements as follows:

  1. Having a track record of fulfilling promises and commitments. When someone has a good record of doing what they say they will do when they say they will do it to the standard expected, one is more likely to trust them. It is critical therefore that there is absolute clarity over what promises and commitments you are making. In addition, if and when, one first becomes aware that they will not be able to deliver, then re-negotiate at the time opportunity. Do not wait, an excuse is only an excuse, no matter how good it maybe.

  2. You must be perceived as capable to do what is expected of you, otherwise, people will not trust you. Leaders must be perceived to be competent to lead.

  3. Demonstrate genuine interest in your people and what matters to them. If people do not believe you care about them, they will not trust you. Showing interest by asking questions, especially of an emotional nature, and supporting through coaching and personal development programmes has a huge positive impact on trust.

Changing Culture and Leadership Development

How many organisations are effective in developing leadership and individual leader competencies within their organisations? Or, in case too many of you believe your own rhetoric, could you do it better?

Training and development programmes, other than induction or individual skills development, are a catalyst for change. As such, there should be clarity on what is currently happening and what you want to see done differently. Where this is not properly planned, very often, the outcomes, even if they are known, are not fully achieved.

There are five essential ingredients to successful planning and implementation of change:

  1. Deciding and reaching alignment and commitment around the desired outcomes. Key questions are - What is the difference that will make the difference? How do we desire our people to think, behave and perform? Where do we need them to be such that this will happen? Describe these as “outcome-based goals”.

  2. What are the new practices that must be put in place in order for us to achieve our desired outcomes? Doing the same things and expecting different results will not cut it. Because doing different things can be so difficult, they must be prioritised, scheduled and reported on. It should feel uncomfortable at first but with repetition and practice it will become natural.

  3. Develop the competence of front-line leaders such that they can engage with the practices needed by the organisation and achieve the desired outcomes. Because the goals are focused on impact and outcomes, personal awareness and interpersonal skills become even more important. Knowing how people are responding to you and altering your style and approach to get the desired outcome are crucial. Development programmes should only be designed after we have clarity on the desired outcome, and we know the different practices we wish to embed.

  4. Gaining buy in. Going through all the above stages in a manner that ensures total buy in and commitment. In other words, the earlier stages focused on the “what” we will do, and this is focusing on the “how” we will go about it.

  5. Build in continuous review and improvement processes. The metrics must reflect the desired outcomes and provide guidance on how it is working and what we can do to improve it.

Leading Leaders

The role of more senior leaders is to support and enhance the performance and capability of front-line leaders through coaching and ensuring they prioritise goals appropriately. Senior leaders have to be cognisant at all times as to how their decisions and actions are viewed and impact on the credibility of the front-line leader.

The goals of the senior leaders should reflect and prioritise their contribution and impact on the effectiveness of front-line leaders. Everything a senior leader does, or does not do, has impact, whether they notice it or not.


All creatures respond to their environments. If you are not getting the responses, you are seeking then change the environment, it’s not working.

Where a front-line manager is not fulfilling the role described above there will be a void and others may step in to fill it.

Think about what you want to achieve and then focus on what you need to do differently to achieve that outcome. It is not about what you do or even your intentions, it is only about one key question, is it working?

If you would like to talk to us about any of the above issues, please get in touch with me at or any one of our Partners.

Brendan McCarthy

Senior Partner

Stratis Consulting

‘Strategic Employment Relations’

T: +353 (0) 1 2166302

M: +353 (0) 87 2433038

Disclaimer: The information in this article is for practical guidance only and does not constitute legal or specific case advice. The answers to specific situations will vary depending on the circumstances of each case. This is not a substitute for specific professional advice relevant to individual circumstances facing your business.


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