Front Line Leader Training: Vital Preparation for a Key Career Transition

Has the focus of leadership development in organisations shifted too far from front line leader training? In this third article from David North, he explores the risks of providing insufficient support during this critical career transition.

Two weeks ago I led a development workshop for a group of first-line supervisors. As I was leaving the premises two of the delegates from the session approached me. ‘Thanks for what you did this morning’ they said, ‘We’ve never had any training to prepare us to supervise others and it was really helpful’.

The fact that they’d taken the trouble to tell me this was immensely gratifying, but also quite shocking. The more so, because it was the third time in 12 months I’d had such an end of workshop conversation with a group of junior leaders.

These experiences got me thinking ‘why are these individuals so energised by, and grateful for the most basic leader training?’ Perhaps the explanation is a general trend in recent decades towards a more selective approach to leader development.

A Shift in Focus

When I started my learning and development career 30 years ago in one of the UK’s leading Insurance companies, most of the development budget was spent addressing the needs of first line supervisors. Occasionally we’d support a middle-level, or senior leader to attend a residential programme at a prestigious business school; but that was the exception.

Our firm belief was that talented staff needed practical support and guidance to help them transition to supervisory roles where their new task was to get the best from others. We knew then, as we know now, that being a good insurance specialist requires a different skill set to managing a technical team.

With the emergence of ‘talent management’ as a key function within HR, the focus shifted to high potential and executive development programmes and 1:1 coaching. I’m not suggesting these groups aren’t important, but front line leaders seem to have been left behind in the scramble to ‘win the war for talent’ in a budget-conscious environment.

“if we want to nurture a more engaged, innovative and productive workforce, surely first line leaders also have a vital role to play.”

I accept that highly talented individuals have a significant positive impact on the strategic direction and success of their organisations – this is true in insurance as well as in any other industry. However, if we want to nurture a more engaged, innovative and productive workforce, surely first line leaders who are managing the vast majority of our technical staff, whether these be in underwriting, claims, reinsurance, pricing, etc. also have a vital role to play. They are the managers with direct, daily contact with most of the people working in the organisation, and their first management role represents a key career transition. In addition to any day to day supervisory responsibilities, they are a crucial cog in the wider people development cycle.

MAP Training have published a number of articles on the importance of embedding new learning and we continue to hear feedback that investment in training and development programmes often fail to deliver the long term shift in behaviour expected. When we explore the reasons why, in many cases one of the key areas of breakdown, is a failure to engage trainees’ line managers. They haven’t been included in conversations about the purpose of the programme, and their required role in providing opportunities for their team members to apply and embed their learning.

I know that some large organisations do prepare their front line technical team leaders to succeed, although I sometimes wonder whether sufficient attention is paid to skill development. After all, knowing more about leadership doesn’t help you to handle a difficult performance conversation with a team member, influence your boss to provide additional resources, or handle conflict with peer managers.

I think there’s a real need to create timely, practical and people-centred development solutions for the emerging leaders in our industry. Solutions that build the confidence and capabilities of new supervisors, while meeting the expectations and releasing the potential of their people. Surely that would be a win for everybody!

At MAP Training we have considerable experience relating to development of capability in insurance. If you would like to discuss any of the areas raised in this article in more detail, we would love to hear from you.

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