Research at Oxford Strategic Consulting has found that first-line leaders are the main influencers of employee engagement, and therefore outcomes such as retention, productivity, quality and profitability.
First-line leaders can be team leaders, project managers or department heads, but what they all have in common is simply that they have to lead a team. The term is employee-centric, as it refers to the leaders who your average employees would have access to instead of other, less-approachable organisational leaders such as chairmen.
As a result, first-line leaders are also the least-experienced leaders in any organisation, and very often are not particularly interested in leadership in itself – it is just something they have to do to progress in their specialism.
They are also often appointed on the basis of their expertise in their particular subject (such as IT) rather than any particular capacity or potential for leadership. Even in organisations with highly developed leadership selection and development techniques, team leaders need help. Because of their key role in engagement, any kind of help will be a great investment by their employers.
In the UAE and Qatar especially, we have shown that a greater proportion of nationals need to be senior leaders than in any other population in the world today. The demographics of rapid growth means that 64 per cent of working Emiratis could be leaders – and there would still be room for more.
So we have a situation where we need to build a huge number of leaders, very fast, into first-line positions that have an enormous impact (positive or negative) on every organisation and indeed the overall success of the country.
What help do first-line leaders get?
In most organisations, first-line leaders receive on average two weeks of face-to-face training in the first year or so of their positions. They may also get access to a mentor in more advanced organisations. They may, if they are interested, also read books or access online information about leadership.
What help do first-line leaders need?
Research shows that the morale and enthusiasm of team leaders varies significantly in their first year, and that this enthusiasm has a direct effect on their teams. The causes of this variation in enthusiasm change over time – on initial appointment the leader may be enthusiastic about their new role. After a while, they often encounter difficult conversations. Morale can then drop and more things might go wrong. On the other hand, they may start to succeed and enthusiasm will rise again.
So the main help first-line leaders need is with carrying out distinct leadership tasks so that failure does not cause a reduction in their enthusiasm.
Take difficult conversations as an example. The leader needs simple, practical tips to carry out a difficult conversation exactly at the point that it occurs – not six months earlier in a training course and not by trawling Google on the subject or by reading expert blogs on the subtleties of human interaction.
Until recently, it was very difficult to provide this kind of help, so organisations tended to provide only training and access to information.
How can these new young leaders learn these days?
Our research with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) suggests they learn by accessing practical, bite-size tools – usually through apps. The obvious solution is to provide a leadership app that provides point-of-need help for the most difficult, frequent and time-consuming tasks that a first-line leader faces.
These apps provide daily support to leaders – ensuring that leadership is a continually improving process rather than simply the sum of positive and negative interactions.
For those who want to go beyond the basics of getting things done, organisations should not leave their first-line leaders to wade through reams of variable-quality blogs and websites, but should provide access to curated and accredited knowledge.
Online resource portals such as the CMI’s Management Direct can be especially helpful for providing managers with fast, well-informed answers for leadership questions.
It is also important, especially if leadership development is urgent and crucial, that the leader is accredited through a globally recognised process. This formally recognises them as a high-quality leader. But accreditation cannot be based on a full-time two-year MBA in these fast-moving times. Experience and knowledge should be accredited through a thorough process that is recognised worldwide and takes full account of on-the-job learning and experience.
For example, the CMI offers professional accreditation at various levels depending on experience, and accreditation can be achieved with no formal course attendance.
Using the latest technology can supercharge leadership development for UAE organisations, but this leadership development must focus on the right employees. First-line leaders should be prime candidates for leadership development because of their influence on employee engagement. Leadership apps and training can help them carry out distinct leadership tasks, significantly improving core business outcomes. The tools are available, but business leaders have to be willing to use them.
William Scott-Jackson is the chairman of Oxford Strategic Consulting, which specialises in building human capital across the GCC and Europe, and a visiting academic at Oxford University.
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