C-Suite Agenda

How Organizations Can Prepare Their Front-Line Leaders for What’s to Come

Katrin Schwabe

As new employees keep rolling in and market conditions toughen, are you thinking about how to equip your front-line leaders? Do they feel prepared to carry out their many changing responsibilities? If not, your culture — and attrition — could be negatively affected. Revisit your leadership development efforts with these strategies. 

With the Great Resignation in full swing, we have witnessed new dimensions of resignations, job rotations, expectations on firms, and fierce competition for talent. The voluntary quit rate has been 25% higher than pre-pandemic levels

Such a mass migration of employees serves as an important reminder that keeping people purposefully engaged requires more than offering them higher compensation or the flexibility to work in a hybrid environment. An MIT Sloan study published in 2022 illustrates the interconnectivity between healthy company cultures and lower attrition rates. When used to predict future turnover, corporate toxicity is 10 times more powerful than compensation. However, much of the discussion about the Great Resignation and the response from organizations to retain and attract talent focuses on employees’ dissatisfaction with wages. 

It is time to look at other drivers for attracting and retaining talent, especially once the labor market softens. Looking ahead and past the Great Resignation, a few things are worth noting:

  1. Markets are most likely heading for a challenging macro environment. 
  2. Many companies are focused on pushing through price increases to offset these rising costs, while others are focused on managing costs. Many CEOs are discussing the challenge of balancing growth and investments with increased scrutiny around all aspects of hiring, marketing spend, productivity, and product road maps. 
  3. The pendulum is shifting slowly away from job expectations driven by what employees want to what organizations demand. Signs of this are everywhere: Hybrid work guidelines ask workers to return to the office, and working from anywhere isn’t the default anymore. Though we are certainly not seeing job conditions return to pre-pandemic versions, organizations have started making demands. We should expect to see a more balanced meeting of demands going forward.

When speaking to analysts, many CEOs state that the pandemic has prepared their organizations to deal with other crises, such as downturns. It seems fair to assume that many employees, however, learned that lesson at different companies than they are working at now. The opportunity that presents itself, then, is to be strategic in equipping your leaders at all levels. Their roles are becoming more and more challenging. 

Take front-line leaders, for example; the expectations of front-line leaders have changed and will continue to change significantly as we look ahead. The traditional expectation has been to achieve results through others. Leaders do this by managing performance, giving feedback, delegating, communicating, and executing strategies. But front-line leaders are asked to do more: experimenting with new ways of working, unlocking the intelligence of people, encouraging growth mindsets, focusing on customers, and encouraging “fail and learn fast” cultures (aka disciplined experimentation). 

In the midst of all this, a third layer of expectations has taken shape: Leaders must focus on how people feel to create meaning and belonging by leveraging diversity of thought and expertise, driving equity, being inclusive, and inspiring emotional connections and psychological safety — to name only a few of the latest capabilities that define successful front-line leaders. 

Transitioning Into a Leadership Role Comes With Predictable Challenges

Not only are the demands on front-line leaders high, but so are their struggles, especially as they transition into their roles. For example, those in less hierarchical organizations often find themselves suddenly managing their former peers and friends. This makes it difficult to exude a sense of confident authority and creates tension among employees. 

Additionally, many new leaders often want to become solitary experts and build knowledge bases completely on their own. Rather than trying to achieve results through their teams, they overload their schedules in their quests to do it all. This inevitably results in burnout, and eventually, they are unable to devote adequate time to managing thoughtfully and deliberately. According to DDI, six out of 10 leaders end their days feeling “used up.” 

To help your leaders foster a culture where people can thrive and have a rewarding work experience, you need to give them the tools, knowledge, and individual development support to fulfill that mandate. 

Thinking of Leadership Development as a Vehicle to Attract Great Talent — Not a Burden

Becoming an effective front-line leader does not happen overnight or over the span of a few months. Most struggle for a while as they try to master the core skills they need to excel and the productive beliefs and assumptions they need to form and turn into habits (e.g., how to find new ways of working, how to think about prioritizing workloads, and where to put their time and energy).

For instance, you might want to initiate coaching and mentoring options between newer front-line leaders and those who have been in the role for several years. Being able to lean on a coach who can serve as a positive role model will lead to more communication and better outcomes for the whole team. 

Although informal development is an excellent option to help front-line leaders increase their foundational leadership capabilities, it is just as important to invest in formal development and on-the-job application. Intentional development and application accelerate learning, capability building, and forming new habits. It helps grow your leadership bench, supports driving a consistent employee experience, and makes space for individual growth. Leadership development is not only an investment, but also a way to build your employer brand. Imagine being known in the market for developing talent — being the company people seek out to grow into the role of a people leader.

Respecting Leadership Candidates Who Choose to Say No

When employees are offered leadership positions, they often feel obligated to take those on, thinking they have to. This is especially true for subject matter experts — be it in sales, engineering, R&D, or IT — who get promoted for their expertise; they have to embrace people leadership responsibilities as part of the deal. The belief is that because they are great at what they do, they can lead people. This often turns out not to be the case. And as a result, they make themselves and everyone around them miserable. 

Organizations can change this by offering team members leadership development prior to promoting them, allowing them to discover whether it is their cup of tea. This gives them the freedom to make informed choices about taking people leadership paths. Organizations that do this well — truly offering the choice — do it without any repercussions to the individual’s career. 

Leading others is a responsibility and a privilege. But when people struggle with being great leaders, their discomfort spills over into everything they do, fueling workplace toxicity. It is essential for organizations to respect their employees and allow them to say no to taking on the mandate of leading others.

Instead of hoping your employees will stay, take proactive steps to reduce their likelihood of leaving by focusing on the aptitude of your people leaders. Your culture and your attrition rates will benefit from your investment.


Written by Katrin Schwabe.
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Katrin Schwabe
Katrin Schwabe is the Head of BTS East’s Leadership & Coach Practice. BTS is a global professional services firm headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden, with some 1,000 professionals in 34 offices located on six continents.


Katrin Schwabe is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn.