Frontline managers are struggling—here’s how to show up for them
Managers are crucial to success on the retail frontline. It’s not so much their rank or title—it’s the role they play since most frontline workers don’t interact with the executive leadership team. The people with the greatest impact on frontline employees are their managers who serve as the face of the business, the brand and its values.
Wearers of many hats, frontline managers are operators, recruiters, ambassadors, trainers, coaches and counselors. Their jobs are and have always been hard. But over the past few years, they’ve become challenging in ways that no one could have predicted and they now need different kinds of support to succeed.
The numbers tell the story
While quit rates among all levels of employees remain high, it seems that managers are feeling the effects of burnout even more. The departure of bosses is rising at a faster rate than entry-level jobs as they are often the first line of defense for staff that are increasingly stressed and eyeing the exit.
Before the crucible of the pandemic, less than 30% of C-suite leadership prioritized the needs of frontline managers. Today, 100% of retail leaders see it as a priority, yet less than 25% of frontline employees trust those at the top to communicate clearly about important company updates and news. Overwhelmed, ill-informed and unevenly supported, frontline managers are struggling. If they can’t deal with the added strains of retention and hiring in a talent desert, they can hardly be in a position to support anyone else.
Axonify’s Chief Learning Architect JD Dillion recently hosted a panel during AxoniCom RETAIL to dive into how retailers can better take care of frontline managers. Together with Dollar General’s Senior Director of Training and Development Matt Metzger, MOHR Retail CEO Mary Beth Garcia and Ashley Stewart’s VP of Human Resources, June Stewart, they uncovered some revealing and actionable insights to prioritize manager enablement that starts with an empathetic approach.
Managers need help now—right now
Managers have been treading water in a pool of socioeconomic chaos. Before they can help themselves, they need a lifeline that offers immediate rescue with the promise of long-term survival skills.
“You’re watching me carry this massive boulder,” says Metzger. “You’re cheering me on, telling me how I’ll be able to do this well in the future. But, actually, I just need you to take the boulder off right now, so I can at least walk.”
“There’s a sense of being overwhelmed,” adds Stewart. “It’s not about the business. It’s about operating in an uncertain environment with so many issues that leave people terrified on a moment-by-moment, day-by-day basis.”
Clearly what’s worked in the past is no longer cutting it and new practices have to be considered and thoughtfully executed.
Lean all the way in
Listening to your employees—especially those that are people leaders—and investigating further when there’s a sense that someone is truly struggling should be embraced and part of regular check-ins and conversations.
“Fine is a four-letter word. When associates and team members say they’re fine—it’s a cue that things are not fine,” says Garcia. “Managers have been holding it in for over two years. It’s important to lean in and really connect with them to see where they are.”
Metzger added that organizations tend to train and plan for normal situations when things are status quo. The problem is that newer retail managers hired within the pandemic haven’t had a chance to experience what “normal” is. Businesses need to consider how to provide adequate and appropriate support in the current context—not an ideal one.
Balance accountability with compassion at every level
Although situational leadership is much harder to teach, the significant communication and trust it builds could be the deciding factor over whether an employee chooses to stay or go.
“We need to be willing to make new recommendations—aimed at the heart more than the head and not confined to a box,” says Stewart. “That piece of the emotional intelligence we’ve been trying to get managers to get comfortable with—to be okay being vulnerable. That’s the piece that has been missing for so long.”
Like so many policies, leading with compassion needs to be put into practice from the executive level down or else it’s never going to be meaningful and feel authentic.
“If your VP, SVP, COO and CEO, aren’t setting examples as compassionate leaders, it’s like a stream that starts at the top of a mountain,” says Metzger. “If it’s cut off at the source, it’s barely a trickle as it flows down. If you cut it off completely, it’s gone.”
Consider it a two-pronged approach; you need to develop empathy and emotional intelligence through training but, since nothing happens in a vacuum, it also has to be a fundamental part of the company culture.
Dig into the full session to see how to take care of frontline managers so they can take care of the frontline
Let go of the one-and-done fallacy
Training is only one part of a larger picture within workforce development. Retailers need to identify the management qualities that matter most and consider them at every step from recruitment to retention. Hire for aptitude alongside skills—and recognize the managers who exhibit these qualities.
“You need role models and you need to give them opportunities to be peer coaches, participating in some of the different training programs,” says Stewart.
She also noted that it makes sense to be intentional when hiring, asking situation-specific questions that test the emotional intelligence of potential hires.
“Have management candidates give you examples of when they’ve led by example. Have them talk you through the outcomes and what they would do differently in those situations where they practice compassion—so that they can connect with the people they’re going to be working with on the ground.”
And when frontline managers and workers leave, find out why and ensure that the pain points are flagged and addressed. “Your exits tell the stories these days,” she continues. “Don’t let anybody leave your business without having some conversations with them. And use these answers to inform what you do next.”
Measure the right things
While most would agree that metrics can unlock telling details about what opportunities or gaps exist, what you’re measuring has to align with an agreed-upon version of success.
“Measurement is one of the most important things to get right—or risk completely derailing every single effort you’ve put in place,” says Metzger.
He gave an example of a new manager starting at a store where everything’s ideal: The market is good, the staff is solid and wins are easy. Compare that with an established manager running a store with significant market challenges, an underperforming location and a struggling team. Success in each scenario is different.
If sales figures were the sole success metric, it would look like the manager at the first store is thriving while the leader at the second store is struggling. But what if the manager at the second store was deliberately rallying the team and making gains? Lagging indicators, like sales and customer satisfaction, wouldn’t reflect this impact.
Retailers need to promote the leadership qualities and essential traits that deliver the greatest return over time—then measure them accordingly, which is often not captured by training module completion alone. You also have to have boots on the ground, go to the frontline and observe these managers in action to identify roadblocks and potential impacts.
Out with the old, in with empathy
Across all industries, the top predictor of attrition is corporate culture. Everyone, from the C-suite to the manager who’s about to start their first day as a leader, has to lead by example and be given the skills to do so.
In the U.S. alone, 11 million deskless jobs remain unfilled and it’s been proven that offering higher wages hasn’t been enough to attract candidates. Real, substantive change that fosters a compassionate environment—where development is seen as an investment and not an expense— and managers are able to lead with empathy to better take care of an evolving frontline, is the best way to move forward.