Skip to main content


Aug 2015

Front-line leaders: 3 capabilities for improving quality

Blog posts



Shaping the future of learning

It’s a commonplace for a business to say that it must improve its leadership, particularly front-line leadership. But what does it mean to improve leadership? Is it always the same task across companies? Or is 'improving leadership' a job that depends on the context and business goals to be achieved?

We often speak of teams in terms of quality, productivity, and retention. Let’s look at what leadership capabilities are most important for each of these outcomes. Are they the same? Today, we will start with quality. Later posts will look at productivity and retention.

Imagine that …

Let’s play an imagination game. First, imagine that you work in medical administration. You have just taken a new job to lead the team that processes medical payments. Your key goal is to improve the quality of the work that the team produces. What capabilities should you master to help your team succeed?

Now imagine that you manage leadership development for the hospital. The hospital has launched a key initiative to improve quality this year. What skills are most critical for all of your Front-Line Leaders to develop? Where should you put training, coaching, and other resources in place to help develop these skills? What should you focus on?

The importance of focus

We’ve recently been talking with a number of organizations about how to develop new Front-Line Leaders. A new Front-Line Leader is someone who has recently made a transition from the role of individual contributor to now being a leader of people. This transition represents quite the challenge, as a new leadership role requires new skills and mastering new competencies. Organizations such as Lominger, DDI, and the Campbell Leadership Inventory all offer several lists of competencies Front-Line Managers may need. These lists can be scary as they usually contain over 50 different competencies which cover a broad spectrum of skill sets.

Given such complexity, it’s not surprising that the Leadership Development Managers we’ve been speaking to emphasized the need to set a clear and business-aligned focus. They realize that focusing on 50 competencies is probably just too much. It’s common sense to say that different capabilities are required to achieve different outcomes. But which capabilities are required to achieve specific outcomes? And how do you target the few highly critical competencies that can best drive the specific business outcomes your organization is after?

To develop our perspective, we have reached out to a group that can be underrepresented in such conversations: line employees themselves. We asked over 300 line employees across a range of industries: “If your team leader were to take one action to achieve this outcome, what action would that be?”

One action to improve quality

Let’s start with quality. Ask yourself: Of all the actions that a team leader could take to improve quality, which single action do you think would be most important?

What does your heart say? How about your head?

Our results are below. We found them quite surprising.

Graph showing actions that the team leader could take to improve quality

Was the action you identified focused on creating an environment that allows for quality? No? Surprisingly, that’s what our results show. The top two items in our survey were about giving team members an environment that allows them to thrive.

We had expected the survey to identify the need to “fix” individual skills as being the top priority for line reports. Instead, fixing individual skills comes in as the third and fourth items. They’re not at the top of the list, although they’re near to the top.

Now, of course, we don’t suggest that these answers apply “as is” to all teams. For example, someone leading a team of doctors may require different capabilities than someone leading a team of construction workers (In fact, we saw evidence of this in our data.) Every situation is unique, so data like this does not replace the need to conduct a performance analysis that targets the goals that your organization wishes to pursue and the capabilities that Front-Line Leaders need to achieve them.

Think about how your organization develops your Front-Line Leaders. Has your organization done the work to get clear on what capabilities are most critical for your Front-Line Leaders in order to help them drive your organization’s business goals? Are your Front-Line Leaders themselves clear on what these capabilities are, and how to execute them? Until you get clear on what competencies are required you will not be able to put in place the performance and training resources required to drive them!

Stay tuned for our next installment: One Action To Improve Productivity.

Interested in learning more about leadership development? Check out our Blended Learning Guide.






Shaping the future of learning

Kineo helps the world’s leading businesses improve performance through learning and technology. We’re proud of our reputation for being flexible and innovative, and of our award-winning work with clients across the world.