Why Develop First Level Managers?

We all are aware, if not over-exposed to the term - VUCA (V-Volatile, U-Uncertain, C-Complex, A-Ambiguous), as a descriptor of current business environment. It has become necessary for the organizations to find new ways to survive and thrive in the environment, which has unpredictable disruptions, frequently. Hence, it has become, both important and urgent, for the organizations to build an agile behavior in the employees.

Change readiness or agility is a requirement across levels, which needs to be present, in every organization. However, because over 80% of the workforce is supervised by the first level managers, therefore, the focus on the leadership has also shifted from the leaders to the base of the organization, who are driving this agile behavior. It becomes important for the organizations to empower its first line managers or leaders, to become more competitive. Without effective first level managers, it is almost impossible for an organization to thrive in the present market scenario.

The first level managers are generally promoted to senior roles because of their high performance in their role as an individual contributor. This is one of the major reasons that over 60% of these employees fail as an effective first level manager.

A study on the state of front-line leadership - The Talent Management Expert, written by Richard S. Wellins, Aviel Selkovits and Debbie McGrath states, that with growing demands for agility, innovation, and efficiency, leading at the front line has become even more challenging.

Looking at the challenges that these new first level managers face, these can be stated as:

  1. Changed job description

  2. New Responsibilities to handle

  3. New Stakeholder Management

  4. Managing the former colleagues

Changed Job Description: The first-level line managers were excellent performers in their earlier role, the reason that they have moved to their present role. Though, in this role, along with monitoring the team performance, they need to look at organizing, resource management as well as act as be facilitators, mentors, mediators and motivators. They are required to inspire and support people in terms of their commitment to both - the team performance and the organization.

New Responsibilities to Handle: The role change from an individual contributor to a first level manager brings in two major responsibility headers - Process and People. Under Process, the individual looks into conducting team performance reviews, team development activities, inter-team negotiations and team meetings. Under the people, he / she is to look at team management, conflict resolution, grievance handling and maintaining team discipline. In order to handle both the headers, new set of skills and competencies are required, which need development.

New Stakeholder Management: The first level managers should act as a bridge between the leadership team and their team - the front-line. They need to learn the skills to have smooth upward conversations and should be able to influence both their up-line and down-line to enhance the performance levels.

Managing the former colleagues: This new role brings in a change and these managers are now to handle the team, of which they were a member of, earlier. Here, the situation becomes a little complex. Specially, when they are a young manager who are to handle a team of older colleagues or the ones who carry more experience than them. This transition requires a change in the mindset from being 'a member' to becoming 'a manager.'

These four major challenges, if not addressed appropriately, by an organization lead to either low-performing first level managers or result in their attrition. Even if, for some time, the performance rises, it might come at a high cost. The cost could be over-stressed line managers and long hours that they put in, to generate the desired results. In any case, this ends up resulting in falling business performance, which none of the organizations would want to have.

In order to handle these challenges effectively, it would be helpful if the organizations looked into a few steps that they can take. These steps are:

  1. Right Expectation Setting

  2. Selection by matching Competencies

  3. Developing the Knowledge, Skill and Competency gaps

  4. Inclusion of their Managers pre and post development

Right Expectation Setting: Identification of the required set of knowledge, skills and attitude for the role of a new first level manager is essential for every organization. This would help in forming the basic criteria for the short-listing of the right candidates from the team. Inform this pool of short-listed candidates about the realities of the role, that they aspire to get into. Give them some time to think and decide, if this is something that they would want to take up.

Selection by matching Competencies: Management is not for everyone. Therefore, there might be some other opportunities provided to those short-listed candidates, who

are not ready to take up a managerial role. When the selection is done for a first level manager, it should be based on the competencies necessary for that role, which should be matched with the competencies available with each role-holder. There are many competency assessment tools which are available today, which would help the organizations in achieving this. A few of these would be:

  • Metric Questionnaire – Containing questions around interaction among peers and public, mental and physical well being, work environment, and decision making

  • Functional Job Analysis Questionnaire - Containing questions related to language, mathematics, quantitative and qualitative reasoning, people and work environment

  • Psychometric Assessments – A proven system which helps complete analysis of an individual based on laid down or required standards

  • Assessment Center – This comprises of real-life activities which are provoking in order to understand the real-life behaviors of aspiring employees

Developing the Knowledge, Skill and Ability gaps: The next step that the organizations should undertake is to have a modular training program, which includes

elements related to one-on-one discussions, managing team performance, giving and receiving feedback, developing team members, succession planning and having difficult conversations. These workshops should be supported by digital learning assets like videos and audio content links, which can be helpful to the candidate at any point in the future. Another intervention which would help in building these gaps will be to get the new and the existing front-line managers in a network, where they can share their ideas, experiences and learning, which will benefit the organization.

Inclusion of their Managers pre and post development: The line managers of these employees should be included in the pre development discussions to agree to the

objectives that are to be achieved. They should be equally a part of the post-development conversations so that they support them to get these skills in their working routine. With the seniors providing coaching and mentoring to them helps them believe that they are being supported and the seniors won’t let them fail. This helps in building their confidence as well as increasing their performance levels.


An organization can get maximum ROI (Return On Investment) by investing time and finance in developing their first level managers, than any other level of staff. When this is done, even a slight improvement in the performance level will result in a substantial rise in the business results.

Another benefit of having well-trained First level Managers is that they can put their hands in so many cookie jars. They generally know a bit of everything, as they have risen from the ground. They are well equipped with the information about what to do (also, what not to do) or whom to ask for help in specific scenarios.

Remember, well-trained and developed first-level line-managers are like business oars, without which, your organization would get carried away with the financial tide.

With the leaders and the senior members of the staff providing a direction and influencing the development of management and business strategies, it is this team of first level managers that implements them and ensures that the staff is executing their tasks in an effective, timely and correct manner.

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