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The six essential skills every frontline supervisor needs

Leadership skills for Frontline Supervisors

Frontline supervisors are the leaders responsible for an organization’s relationship with customers and the majority of its employees. When it comes to translating an organization's strategy into results, frontline supervisors are the linchpin of organizational success.

Few roles are as demanding as that of the frontline supervisor. The role requires specific technical knowledge and expertise as well as soft skills, such as communication, team building, and conflict resolution. Frontline supervisors directly impact almost all key performance metrics – from employee engagement and turnover to customer satisfaction and overall productivity. As Linda A. Hill, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, writes in Becoming a Manager, “Managers on the front line are critical to sustaining quality, service, innovation, and financial performance.” In order for a frontline supervisor to be successful, they need to have these essential leadership skills:

Strategic thinking

Frontline supervisors need foundational business skills to understand their organization’s strategic priorities and how their own department supports those priorities. Equipped with business knowledge, frontline supervisors are able to ensure their work — and the work of their direct reports — is aligned to the objectives of the organization as a whole. Day-to-day decisions are thoughtfully made with the organization’s overall success in mind, rather than relying instinct or gut feeling.

Team building and leading

One of the main responsibilities of a frontline supervisor is to manage the people on their team. The most successful supervisors are able to clearly demonstrate to their team how their work is connected to the larger organization and how that work contributes to the organization’s overall success. In addition, there will be times when supervisors must inspire and guide team members to exceed expectations or put in extra effort or time — without financial incentives. Effective supervisors are able to accomplish goals by influencing the actions, decisions, and thinking of others.

Organizational savvy

The ability to build relationships and collaborate with other frontline supervisors across the organization is critical – especially when implementing strategic initiatives that are directed from executive leadership. Managing internal stakeholders and navigating organizational politics to achieve goals are key competencies for frontline supervisors.

Personal leadership awareness

Supervisors who understand their own strengths, weaknesses, biases, and working styles are better equipped to influence and interact effectively with their own team – and colleagues – who have different working styles and personalities.


As a leader on the frontline, you need to be able to communicate well with your manager, but also with your direct reports, customers, and stakeholders. Effective communication requires both empathy and assertiveness, especially when managing diverse teams. Whether you’re conveying goals and expectations, enforcing corporate rules you didn’t shape yourself, providing negative feedback to employees, and saying no to requests – communicating with presence allows you to get your message across in an approachable and authoritative way.

Coaching and emotional intelligence

The role of a leader isn’t to be a commander, but instead a facilitator – one who creates the conditions that will allow their teams to thrive. To do this effectively, training and practice is needed. Part of being a great leader and coach is providing team members with ongoing, meaningful feedback to objectively communicate what employees are doing well and what needs to be worked on. Everyone wants to know their work matters, understand what is required of them, be recognized for their efforts, and be treated with understanding and respect.

The frontline supervisor training gap

Frontline supervisors are traditionally promoted from functional roles where the focus is on a singular job task. No longer individual contributors responsible for their own performance, newly-minted frontline supervisors must direct and manage the performance of others as well as their own. With a new role comes new challenges: How do you problem-solve on the fly? How do you handle conflicts involving your staff, suppliers, or contractors? How do you coach your direct reports – who used to be your peers or even friends – to improve quality and efficiency? Whether you’re a supervisor working in a unionized manufacturing environment or a team lead working in technology or retail, the challenges remain the same.

For such an important role, it may come as a surprise that few organizations invest in the development of their frontline supervisors. A 2011 CareerBuilder survey found 60 per cent of recently promoted frontline supervisors didn’t receive any training for their new role. A Harvard Business Review report, Frontline Managers: Are They Given the Leadership Tools to Succeed?, revealed that only 12 per cent of survey respondents believe their organization invests sufficiently in the development of frontline managers. Of those survey respondents, more than 90 per cent agreed that frontline supervisors’ lack of leadership development negatively impacts business results.  

These surveys clearly demonstrate a gap between frontline supervisor responsibility and preparedness. The transition from team member to frontline supervisor requires training and development to ensure sustained success. Because of a lack of investment in training for essential leadership skills, frontline leaders are falling short in some of the most critical aspects of their jobs. An investment in frontline supervisors is an investment in the entire organization, with dividends that pay beyond the front lines.

Leadership training for frontline supervisors

A structured, leadership-focused training program to strategically build soft skills is critical in developing high-performing, successful frontline supervisors. Yet few organizations have the resources to build this type of program on their own.

That's where the Ivey Emerging Leaders Program can help. The program is designed for early-career leaders to build a strong foundation of skills and self-awareness. Participants commonly oversee small teams or are preparing for a future leadership role. Participants learn to lead collaboratively, navigate conflicts, and manage upwards with your bosses. Through a combination of self-assessment, peer learning, simulations, and faculty-led case discussions, you'll explore your personal approach to leadership, and work on constructing your future path.

Gain the necessary skills to succeed and develop further in your career with the Ivey Emerging Leaders Program. For more information on the program, please download the program brochure.


About The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School
The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School is the home for executive Learning and Development (L&D) in Canada. It is Canada’s only full-service L&D house, blending Financial Times top-ranked university-based executive education with talent assessment, instructional design and strategy, and behaviour change sustainment. 

Rooted in Ivey Business School’s real-world leadership approach, The Ivey Academy is a place where professionals come to get better, to break old habits and establish new ones, to practice, to change, to obtain coaching and support, and to join a powerful peer network. Follow The Ivey Academy on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.