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AEU LEAD Director Joe White Featured in Training Industry Article

Jun 11, 2018
Despite line managers being a critical factor in a employee morale and customer satisfaction, only 42% of companies provide them with formal training. Joe White, director of AEU LEAD, recently sat down with Training Industry to discuss effective line manager development programs. The following article was originally published on

The Liaison Between the Executive Team and the Workforce: Developing Successful Line Managers

Taryn Oesch, CPTM, Training Industry Editor

Line managers, says Natalie Rogers, senior manager of leadership development at Greencore, are the ones whose “everyday actions … create an environment of trust, engagement and performance. Unlocking their potential and helping them cast their best shadow is how we will achieve our ambitions.”

Greencore, an international convenience food manufacturer, and OnTrack International recently announced a new line manager training program at Greencore. “Like their counterparts in other industries, L&D teams in manufacturing companies need to develop the capabilities and potential of their existing and future leaders, with relevant, memorable and culturally-sensitive training,” said Cecilia Westin Curry, development partner at OnTrack International, in the press release announcing the partnership with Greencore. “That said, manufacturing has its own idiosyncrasies, so designing and delivering effective learning in this sector is a very different challenge.” The solution OnTrack and Greencore devised is an on-the-go blended learning program.

The Role of the Line Managers

“Line managers represent the liaison between executives and the workforce,” says Joe White, director of AEU LEAD, the consulting division of The American Equity Underwriters, Inc. But “many also serve as the point of interface between companies and customers.” That means they can be a critical factor in employee morale and customer satisfaction – “two critical measures of an organization’s health.”

Executives and shop floor employees tend to receive the most attention from training departments – and budgets. But Roger and White agree that the role of the line manager is a challenging one – and one that White says “offers the most in potential returns impacting the bottom line.” Line managers, therefore, need tools to succeed, and that includes, Rogers says, learning that will build their confidence.

“Nowhere in the organization are interpersonal communication skills more needed than in the area of line management,” says White. The “most pressing” training needs are, therefore, “people-oriented leadership skills.” That includes understanding the difference between management (influence by position or title) and leadership (influence by actions and example).

Unfortunately, “the majority of supervisors, foremen and lead personnel don’t have the required skillsets for the people-oriented roles and responsibilities they have or the challenges they routinely face,” says White. That’s because they are often promoted based on technical performance as an individual contributor rather than their leadership or potential leadership skills. Additionally, he says, AEU LEAD’s research has found that only 42 percent of companies provide formal training to line managers, and 57 percent have never defined expectations for supervisors or “have only a general understanding of what” the role involves.

Effective Line Manager Development Programs

So, how can companies improve those numbers? “For many decision-makers,” says White, the key is “connecting the dots – being able to better understand the gap that now exists between critical skills needed and those provided.” Relatedly, organizations should define line managers’ performance objectives and align them with learning and development opportunities. It’s also important to incorporate learner input to tailor training to individual needs – including using self-assessments, peer and subordinate feedback, and individual action planning, supported by coaching and mentoring.

However, White says, companies face many challenges in providing such training opportunities, including the time and content available. The solution to time constraints for many companies is breaking training into smaller segments and providing reinforcement between sessions. Content can be more challenging. White says few companies have the resources in house to develop effective line manager development content and programs, but “most commercially available leadership-oriented training content is either canned and too generic or executive-oriented and too lofty for practical application at an operational level.” The solution, he says, is to partner with instructional designers with experience in adult learning. For small businesses, that might mean partnering with the local community college. For larger companies, it might mean “bringing in knowledgeable resources on a contract basis for a short period of time.”

Or, as Greencore did, you can develop a program in conjunction with a training company. “As a 24/7 business and in an ever-increasing world of immediacy,” says Rogers, “our managers told us they needed access to tools and resources on the job, just in time and at the point of need. The reality is that learning happens in the everyday, in our conversations, our experiences and our interactions, so we wanted to provide the tools to match.” The goal of the program Greencore developed with OnTrack, Rogers says, is to be “a one-stop shop for everything you need to be a great manager, whether you’re new into the role or been doing it for 20 years.” That shop includes a self-directed blended learning program with digital on-the-go tools, such as videos, infographics, guides, workbooks and activities, as well as experiential workshops.

Rogers says Greencore is measuring success with several metrics, including employee engagement and turnover. In addition, the company is tracking content consumption (75 percent of users return to the platform, and learners spend an average of 12 minutes per visit, with video being the most popular type of content). Other, “softer” metrics include manager engagement, enthusiasm and commitment to their development as well as “teams [that are] taking ownership for driving improvements.” White recommends measuring four areas (aligned with Kirkpatrick’s model): participants’ reactions and knowledge acquisition, behavior change (using individual action plans and manager feedback) and performance impact.

Training, White says, “is most effective when progress is celebrated over perfection.” By providing continuous learning opportunities and measuring and celebrating incremental successes, manufacturing companies – and those in other industries – can develop effective line managers who create impactful customer and employee experiences.