Harnessing the Curiosity of Frontline Leaders to Drive Performance


In 2010, a McKinsey survey1 revealed that many executives and senior leaders “are unhappy with the performance of their companies’ frontline managers”. More worrisome still, the vast majority of frontline managers (81 percent) said that they were not satisfied with their own performance. One of the main reasons for the lack of satisfaction is that companies’ training programs are not designed to help frontline managers be successful in their roles, despite the potential impact their jobs can have on the company’s success.

In short, the survey revealed that the resources and energy that 90% of companies are putting into their development and training programs for frontline managers are simply not preparing them to take on their leadership roles successfully.

Previous work by McKinsey2 has shown that “empowering frontline managers to make decisions, anticipate problems, and coach their direct reports (rather than simply following and giving orders and solving crises) generates higher productivity and other benefits.”

So what can be done to develop these frontline leaders, successfully prepare them to take on their roles, and generate higher levels of productivity?

We believe that the first step is to move away from a transactional approach to developing these leaders. I.e. training programs that focus on basic skill building and mastering HR processes; move towards an approach that leverages these leader’s inherent curiosity; grounded in the company’s business challenges; builds behavioural self-awareness; and explores how to engage people for maximum performance and productivity.

In effect, moving away from a formulaic understanding of leadership by creating a “learning environment” for these leaders to safely share and explore their critical leadership challenges with their peers and develop their personal leadership approach to these challenges.

We are not talking about reinventing the wheel – but instead leveraging many of the learning and development strategies used for more senior leaders and adapting them for use with frontline managers.

Leverage Curiosity

Unfortunately, too many leadership development initiatives, which target frontline managers, do not attempt to activate the curiosity of these leaders. This is a mistake because we believe that curiosity is critical to leadership performance.

Activating curiosity leads to asking “great questions” about the business and leadership challenges these leaders are facing. For example:

  • How does my team generate value for my department and the company as a whole?
  • What can we do differently to maximize our team performance?
  • Why does Bill react one way when I work with him and Tom reacts in a totally different way when I use the same leadership style with him? What’s going on?
  • How is my behavior as a leader impacting the people I work with?
  • What do my stakeholders like about the way I lead and what would they like me to do differently?
  • What words would someone use to describe me when they are speaking with their friends?
  • What can I do differently to improve my effectiveness as a leader?

We must accept that the answer to each question are unique to each frontline leader. Properly harnessed, the insights they gain from these questions, coupled with a robust dialogue regarding potential solutions provides these leaders with the courage to experiment with new leadership techniques.

Grounded in Business Reality

We also believe that business context plays a critical role in preparing these individuals to successfully perform in their frontline leadership roles.

One of the complaints that many senior leaders have with their frontline leaders is that they are too “operationally focused” and “don’t see the big picture”. Much of this is due to how their frontline leadership roles are structured.

However, a development strategy that aims at helping these leaders gain a deeper insight into the company’s purpose, strategy, value proposition and execution challenges enables these leaders to do more than “align” their activities, and those of their teams, to corporate goals.

It opens the door for a robust dialogue about the steps frontline leaders can take to maximize value creation and productivity. It also offers senior leaders the opportunity to drive corporate performance because frontline managers are where the rubber meets the road. It’s where the strategic decisions taken in the C-suite meet the cold reality of market and operational uncertainties.

Build Self Awareness

The evidence is overwhelming that a core component an effective leader is having a high level of self-awareness, which includes an understanding of the leader’s behavioural preferences and how he or she is experienced by their key stakeholders.

There is also an incredibly rich inventory of psychometric instruments, 360-degree feedback surveys, and other tools and techniques that can be used to increase self-awareness.

Unfortunately, most of these tools are reserved for more senior leadership cadres.

We believe this is a wasted opportunity.

Why wait for frontline leaders to be promoted to more senior positions before helping them gain a deeper understand of themselves?

Wouldn’t they benefit from exploring their behavioural and decision-making preferences? Wouldn’t they benefit for understanding their impact on others? Wouldn’t they be able to use these new insights to more effectively lead their teams?

The most common answer that development professionals raise is the issue with cost. It’s too expensive to administer and debrief these instruments for such a large target population.

Our position is that looking solely at cost rather than at the cost-benefit is indicative of the transactional approach to developing frontline leaders in many organizations. Many organizations tend to see the cost of these tools as attached to a single front line leader. They do not see that the benefit of the leader’s greater self-awareness accrues mainly to the leader’s followers in terms of greater satisfaction at work and greater productivity.

If we rethink the equation, and factor the cost across the frontline managers and the teams they lead – then which executive would not invest a few dollars to potential gain a “1 to 3%” minimal improvement in performance across an entire organization?

Why 1 to 3%? Because, at a minimum, leadership development initiatives should be aiming to make a positive impact on the overall performance of the organization. Where is the potential impact greater than at the frontline?

Exploring the Drivers of Individual and Team Performance

Once again, the most common approach to developing frontline leaders is to focus on building a generic portfolio of leadership skills such as goal setting, giving and receiving feedback, and managing conflict.

While these skills are essential for frontline managers to master, it’s the application of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to individual cases that creates the leadership deficiencies. We deprive these frontline leaders of critical insights into the drivers of engagement and performance by promoting the use of these skills in a vacuum, and without consideration of the needs and preferences of followers.

We believe it is much more effective to have frontline leaders explore the drivers of engagement and motivation by looking at their own biases and assumptions – and trying to put themselves into the shoes of their followers.

For example, why does one approach work so well with Sally – but falls flat with John? Is it a problem with John or an issue with the way I lead John? How can I diagnose the situation with John and find a leadership approach that works for John? These are questions that many frontline leaders may fail to ask themselves – but which can put them on a path to becoming more effective leaders – one interaction at a time.

Feedback from frontline leaders indicates that they are more confident in their leadership abilities when they are equipped with insights into how personal identity, role perception, expertise, and experience – to name but a few factors – impact engagement and performance. They appreciate being invited into a dialogue of exploration more than being taught a set of skills.

Finally, our experience indicates that frontline leaders who have a practical understanding of these factors set more meaningful goals, utilize a more flexible approach to leadership, and more successfully drive the performance and productivity of a diverse set of individuals and teams. This is exactly the goal that traditional ‘skills-based’ development aims at achieving. However, without the individual context in which these skills are to be applied, many frontline leaders are less effective than they could be.

Going forward, we believe organizations can be more effective in developing frontline leaders if they leverage the curiosity and cognitive abilities of these individuals by providing them with the opportunity, time, space, and support to explore critical leadership questions and develop their own solutions to the leadership challenges they are facing.

The stakes are high and the organizations that focus on leveraging the curiosity of frontline leaders will reap the benefits as we move further into the digitized world where creativity, innovation, and analytical skills are the benchmarks of successful frontline team members.


1How companies manage the front line today: McKinsey Survey results – February 2010

2Unlocking the potential of frontline managers,”mckinseyquarterly.com, – August 2009