One of the most valuable early career experiences I had was as a first line manager. I’d completed this job rotation in a highly operational environment where results were reported and evaluated at the close of every day. Gaining this familiarity with managing people and output was instructive for two reasons. First, first line managers have a significant amount of leverage on performance. Next, a litmus test for learning solutions is their relevance for and usability by this important group. It’s a lesson I haven’t forgotten.
According to “The Leadership Pipeline Model” by Stephen Drotter, Ram Charan and James Noel, I was evolving from being an individual contributor to a team leader, and my progress was measured by team performance. During my transition to this role, my soon-to-be former manager gave me advice that did not make sense to me at the time, but has proven invaluable over the course of my career: “Make your people successful and everything else will come together.”
I strongly recommend that learning specialists in the early to midstages of their career spend time in a first line management role outside of human resources. It’s a great opportunity to supervise employees who interact with clients, to use the processes and tools HR provides, and it can inform your approach to designing and implementing learning solutions. While I graduated from that role more than 25 years ago, I regularly draw from those experiences in my current role as a chief learning officer.
Working with and managing those closest to a firm’s clients is an invaluable reality check about the challenges employees who are responsible for client service and issue resolution face daily. I can think of no better experience for a manager than mediating an escalated issue that a company representative has to resolve, and then simultaneously providing feedback and coaching to ensure that individual is better prepared for the next time as the direct supervisor.
Stepping into a situation where you as a team leader are in charge and ultimately accountable, but may not have the same depth of subject matter expertise as those you manage, is also an important early career experience. Being able to complete high quality work through others and transitioning from the doer to the coach role sets the stage to ascend to the next levels of management. It also builds the consultative skills and hands-on experience needed to add more value as a learning leader.
Experiencing HR’s solutions and processes as a first line manager is also a great way to assess their usability and practicality. Using the performance management, payroll change or benefits procedures while also focusing on operational throughput is a great way to gauge the utility of these practices.
For example, as a first line manager back in the days of paper-based performance management, the standard, handwritten form we used was bright orange so when it was time for an annual review employees jokingly referred to this as “agent orange time” due to the negative association with the process that was reinforced by the form’s color. To mitigate this response, I quickly learned to show and discuss employee results on a separate white form that I would then staple to the official form. In our current era of sophisticated talent platforms, this experience is akin to configuring the system to focus on the user experience functionally and aesthetically.
With the advice from my long-ago manager top of mind, I remember that liberating moment when I realized that the true measure of being a first line manager was my team’s achievement, not my own. Only by developing and building skills in those around me could I progress to the next role or step in my career.
Translating this notion to our learning leader work ensures that we enable individual and organizational performance, development and growth through our consultation, processes and tools; it often simplifies rather than overcomplicates these practices. By experiencing and seeing our organizations through the first line manager’s eyes, we can add more value as learning leaders because we can confidently attest to the fact that we have been on the front lines.