6 Keys to Effective Frontline Leadership and Management in Service Operations


A simple google search on ‘effective frontline leadership and management’ yields many different results and a vast variety of author opinions on the subject.  However, when reading many of these views, there appears to be a gap between a host of theoretical / academic opinions versus those that are anchored in the real world.

This ‘gap in practice’ is made more apparent when you add the service operations dimension to the search.  Whilst there is an argument to say that a leader is a leader irrespective of environment, there is a strong counter opinion that suggests that leadership and management needs to be adaptable to the environment and situational context faced.

This article reflects on real life experience of developing frontline leaders, specifically in a service operations context.  It doesn’t intend to stand up as academic research, nor does it intent to offer an exhaustive list, but it certainly seeks to highlight some simple observations on leadership based on real events that my team and I have experienced over time.


A leader with no time is like a boat with no rudder – directionless. If your day comprises of fighting fires and dealing with waves of organisational distractions, can you really be effective at leading your team?

Yes I get the reality.  We all get pulled in many different ways in today’s organisations and I’ve heard a thousand times over – “I just don’t have the time for that”, which may be true today with your current working practices.

But what are you actively doing to manage your time and how disciplined are you being?

How much of your time is spent on the core activities of your role, things such as coaching, managing performance, continuous improvement and planning?

Start to break the mould by analysing how your time is spent over a couple of weeks.  Keep it simple, create a simple check sheet and note down where your time goes.  Do the ratios feel right?  You’ll be surprised and undoubtedly alarmed by the results.  If not, take action.  Present the data to those around you and find a better way, you’ll need the support of others to make it happen.  Create a schedule that works and don’t compromise on the vital things.

There are only so many hours in the day.  You can’t be a hero forever.  Take control of your time and focus it on supporting your teams in the right way.  And remember that it’s ok to say no, including to those above you!


Knowing why your operation exists, its purpose, is a critical first step.  Of course, purpose needs to be defined in the eyes of those that you serve, your customers, be those external or internal.  Gaining clarity of purpose can be a defining moment.  It instantly gives you a different context and makes you think about everything that you and your team do on a day to day basis.  It is commonly observed that activities, processes and management practices evolve over time.  This situation is accentuated further as people change, with those that arrive learning from those that preceded them.

Are your teams really focussed on the right activities and are they spending the right amount of time on these activities?  Understanding purpose enables you to reflect, take stock and push the reset button where it is required.


So now that we understand purpose, are we measuring our ability to deliver upon it effectively?  The cottage industry of KPIs is a common ailment in service operations and has many causes.

  • “But the boss wants to know that”.
  • “We once got asked for that information by the Risk department”.
  • “I like to know absolutely everything that is going on and have my finger on the pulse”.

But if we were to peel all of those superficial ‘justifications’ for KPIs away, the challenge remains how can we build a good measurement system that drives the right outcomes for our customers?  

We think that setting good measures is simple and should be guided by three questions:

1. Are we measuring what is important to the customer (purpose), end-to-end?
2. Are our measures balanced appropriately?e.g. Quality / Customer; Cost / Productivity; Delivery / Lead Time; Risk; People
3. Are measures of performance aligned from top to bottom through my business?

Secondly, there is a simple yet effective test to perform once measures of performance have been set to understand if they are likely to be effective.  Ask yourself these two questions:

1. Is the measure of performance driving the behaviour that I want and expect?
2. Is the measure of performance driving continuous improvement?

If the answer to either of these questions is ‘”no” you should question the need of the measure as its effectiveness may be limited.


“Eliminate numerical goals, numerical quotas and management by objectives. Substitute leadership”
W.E. Deming

Deming’s famous 14-points of management are still as valid today as they were when first published decades ago.  Most service operations set arbitrary targets, typically down to an individual level, but do this out of habit rather than truly understanding the performance impact of doing this.

But there is a difference between a target and a meaningful expectation.

A target is fixed, it’s hit or miss.  An expectation however is far softer and requires an intelligent approach in definition to be meaningful.

So how do we make an expectation meaningful?  Well first we need to reach for the data.  How has performance varied over time and what is normal in terms of this variation?  This is where some simple statistical analysis is required, through the use of control charts which are used display the extent of this variation.  Without them you simply cannot understand the boundaries of performance, so cannot with any confidence set a meaningful expectation.

It’s important not to forget that we’re working with people not robots, so variation in output is inevitable.  However, this doesn’t remove the need to set expectations and try to improve performance to raise these expectations over time.

Of course, the style of performance dialogue linked to this becomes massively important, leading to my next point.


Imagine being a team member stood at the following daily performance meetings where the frontline leader is discussing yesterday’s performance.  In both cases the set daily expectation was not achieved by the team.

Meeting 1  “We didn’t hit our team target yesterday.  Four of you, Jane, Raj, Peter and Alice missed your individual targets.  What were you doing?”

Meeting 2  “Unfortunately team we didn’t meet our expected plan yesterday.  Did anything specific happen to anyone that could have caused some of this variation in output?  If yes, let’s capture it and try and understand the root causes of why that happened so we can stop it from impacting us in the future”

Which conversation would you prefer?  Which would drive better outcomes and the right behaviour in the team?

The context and language used here by the leader is massively important – this is the opportunity to drop the stick used to beat individuals in favour of a collaborative, coaching approach that focusses on removing problems from the system to improve team performance.


Often unfairly criticised as one of managements clichés, being a role model has a significant impact on those that surround you. People look up to leaders, whatever their level, and look to them to set the standards and expected behaviours.

Imagine a business whose leaders just did as they pleased, chaos would soon ensue!

The topic of role modelling is worthy of an article in its own right, but if you were to pick a few key elements, they would be as follows:
#1: Be accountable. Own results on behalf of the team and let them know this.
This demonstrates your confidence in them and will give you their commitment in return.

#2: Be humble. We all get things wrong, it’s how we improve.
Humility in a leader helps to set a safe environment for continuous improvement, people won’t be afraid to fail.

#3: Be inclusive. Everyone needs a piece of the leader, not just those doing well or poorly.
It’ll lead to better engagement.

And remember, treat others as you’d expect to be treated yourself.  It builds confidence and trust and will make people prepared to go above and beyond in that moment of crisis.

Leadership is a vast topic and one that can be written about at length.  But we can overcomplicate it at times.  The beauty of the points above lie in their simplicity.  They’re all within our gift as leaders.

The greater benefit lies when these six elements are combined as the performance of the team can improve exponentially.  You, the frontline leader holds the key to unlocking this potential.

Chris Dando - Reinvigoration

About Chris Dando

Chris Dando is a Partner at Reinvigoration. He is passionate about helping organisations to find solutions to their operational challenges. You can get in touch with him directly by email or connect on Linkedin


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