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7 May, 2015

Measuring The Leadership Skills Of Your Frontline Leaders

How do you measure leadership skills? Or more specifically, how do you measure the leadership skills of frontline and middle managers? And why bother?

Why measure leadership skills?

There’s an old saying that goes, “What gets measured gets done.” Actually this isn’t entirely true. You have a speedometer in your car which measures how fast you’re driving. This doesn’t mean that you’ll always obey the speed limit. Perhaps, what we should say is, “What gets measured can be managed.”

If it’s true that there’s a general lack of leadership capability among frontline managers (and a great deal of evidence suggests there is), then a method of measuring activity and effectiveness is critical. Without measurement we can’t manage; without measurement we can’t give feedback; without feedback, frontline managers assume that they’re doing okay, when, in fact, they may not.

How to measure leadership competencies

To measure leadership competencies, you must first define leadership. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds — there is no one clear definition. However, when pragmatic business people discuss frontline leadership, they talk about the soft skills required to influence, motivate and develop people in order to maximise performance. Examples of soft skills include the ability to command, manage conflict, confront direct reports, develop, direct and motivate others and build effective teams.

There are multiple levels of leadership measures:

  1. the productivity and performance outcomes achieved by employees and workgroups
  2. how successful the leader is at influencing, motivating and developing their people
  3. what the leader does do to influence, motivate and develop people.

Productivity and performance measures

The primary measure of the effectiveness of a frontline or middle manager’s leadership is the productivity or performance of their workgroup. The advantage of this measure is that it’s available for virtually every team. The data is a clear indicator of the success of the workgroup and, by extension, the success of that group’s manager.

However, this isn’t particularly useful for improving the leadership skills of frontline and middle managers — there are many factors beyond their control. For example, individual work performance can be affected by illness or the death of a relative; workgroup performance can be affected if, for example, a manager finds themselves leading a team of inappropriately-selected, under-trained poor performers or, alternatively, a team of well-selected, highly-trained high performers.

The other difficulty with just measuring the overall productivity and performance of a workgroup is that it provides no data on what the leader has done and hasn’t done; where they are strong or weak. Without this information it’s impossible to manage and develop their leadership capability.

Measures of discretionary effort

One of the keys to managing the performance of employees is triggering discretionary effort — getting them to go the extra mile for the organisation. People constantly make choices about their work, like the range of tasks they take on, how fast they work and how well they work (which includes quality, care, innovation and delivery).

People are more likely to engage in discretionary effort when they feel motivated, are satisfied with their job and committed to their work, workgroup and organisation. The leadership activities of frontline managers play a pivotal role in triggering discretionary effort.

Unfortunately, discretionary effort is difficult to measure. However, there are two other measures which provide a clear indication of discretionary effort, meaning that measuring it is unnecessary. They are:

  1. levels of productivity and performance
  2. levels of employee motivation, which can be measured using employee-engagement surveys.

Measures of employee engagement

Employee engagement indicates how successful organisations and business units are at influencing, motivating and developing their people. This is simply a new term for employee commitment, or good old-fashioned employee motivation.

A growing number of large and medium-sized organisations now measure employee engagement and for good reason — there is now considerable evidence that high employee engagement generates higher employee productivity, business unit performance and profit; along with lower shrinkage, accident rates and employee turnover. For example, research by Kenexa New Zealand shows that engaged employees generate a 95% higher return on assets, 68% more sales, and are 29% more likely to stay with their current organisation.

Employee engagement is a very useful measure for identifying performance-improvement opportunities, particularly when used in conjunction with trends in both organisational and workgroup productivity and performance. It’s also extremely useful for measuring organisational leadership. Employee engagement, however, is a poor direct measure of frontline leadership. For example, in one common employee engagement survey there are 60 questions phrased as statements. Only six of them directly refer to the employee’s immediate manager while 30 of the statements refer specifically to the organisation.

Clearly the activities of frontline and middle managers have an impact on employee engagement, but so do many organisational and management activities. It’s difficult to understand the level of leadership activity and capability of individual managers by just using employee-engagement data. The problem is that employee-engagement results are not personal and perceived by managers as more reflective of the organisation and business unit than themselves, so there is little incentive to improve.

This means that there is still insufficient data to manage the leadership activity and capability of frontline managers.

The best measure of frontline leadership activity

To manage the leadership activity and capability of your frontline and middle managers most effectively, you need specific data on what they do consistently. The best people to tell you this are their direct reports.

While the use of 360 degree surveys is becoming more common, this isn’t what I’m talking about. It is rare for the colleagues of a frontline or middle manager to consistently observe how that manager interacts with their people. What’s needed is a 360 degree feedback process that enables feedback from a manager’s direct reports along with self-evaluation, and guidance in the development of a Leadership Improvement Plan from their immediate manager.

The other necessary element is a set of customised questions, rather than one-size-fits-all. At a more senior level, a common set of questions may make sense, but, in reality, frontline and middle managers operate in a diverse range of settings — retail stores, contact centres, distribution centres, field forces, back-office processing, manufacturing and much more. While the practices of effective leadership are common, the actual translation of those into everyday activity is affected by the type of work team members perform, the physical environment and the geographical distribution of the team.

I speak from experience when I say that the data from this type of measurement is highly actionable. More than a decade ago I wanted to use this type of measurement approach for my clients. Nothing was available, so I developed a leadership assessment tool, which I branded BravaTrak®. BravaTrak® has proven to be the key to enabling my clients to consistently improve the leadership activity and grow the capability of their frontline and middle managers.

The benefit of a tool that measures actual frontline-leadership activity is that specific, individualised, 90-day action plans can be developed and agreed on immediately after the data is available. Managers have their own clear specifics to work on — there’s no hiding — and the data and responsibility belongs to the individual manager rather than the whole business unit. So, accountability is much higher and improvement can be measured in months rather than years.

It is also possible to observe the trends of strengths and weaknesses across the business unit. This allows targeted interventions, such as training, to be put in place to address common issues.

One of my clients, a general manager responsible for numerous geographically-distributed business units within a major corporate organisation, refers to BravaTrak® as her “secret weapon.” It gives her a view of the leadership activity and capability of her frontline and middle managers that she is unable to get any other way.

Of course, this sort of data shouldn’t be used in isolation. It’s best employed when bearing in mind the productivity and performance measures for each manager’s workgroup, their employee-engagement levels and your own observations of management and leadership activity.

If you wish to maximise the productivity and performance of your business unit or frontline teams, the pivotal role to enable this is held by your frontline and middle managers. There is no way around this and having a way to measure their leadership activity and effectiveness is essential.


To get our report “The Secret to Leadership Effectiveness”, which shows how YOU can help your organisation improve leadership quality, employee engagement, and financial success, click here.


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