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Viewpoint: 6 Smart Strategies for Front-Line Managers

A man and woman talking at a desk in an office.

​Working in HR and managing people offer many different challenges, but there are some that come back again and again—and they usually aren't the hassles that arise when writing policies or complying with an arcane employment law.

Here, seasoned HR professionals share their hard-won leadership wisdom to help you successfully navigate your own career in HR or as a manager of teams and people.

Lesson 1: Your job isn't to motivate. Your job is to create an environment where others can motivate themselves.

Motivation is an internal force. I can't motivate you any more than you can motivate me. But great bosses who are exceptional leaders are often described as motivational. What does that mean? "A motivational leader inspires others to do their best work every day, to place others' needs ahead of their own, and to exercise selfless leadership in their dealings with others. Motivation often comes through recognition, appreciation and praise for a job well done," said Kim Congdon, global vice president of human resources and talent management at Herbalife Nutrition in Torrance, Calif. "After all, who wouldn't respond well when they feel their boss has their back, values their input and recognizes their achievements?" You don't need an app or fancy software to achieve this. Make support and recognition the cornerstone of your leadership. Make it central to your reputation and brand equity. Then watch how things begin to come together for both you and your team in new ways that are healthy, creative and productive.

Lesson 2: Model the behavior you wish to see in others. Be the first domino.

"When is management going to get it? They never listen. They always assume they know better." How often do you hear exaggerations around the watercooler that sound like this?

"Be wary about falling into the 'always' and 'never' statement constructs," Congdon advised. "Any time you see hyperbole to that degree, you know something about the complaint or the description is out of whack, since it's rarely the case that situations become that extreme in the workplace." Instead of falling prey to such (although somewhat inviting) diatribes, place yourself in the role of rebuilder and healer. Correct those problems in the workplace that you can control, and serve as the role model for others to follow when faced with limitation. Be the person who quiets the dissonance.

Lesson 3: Become someone's favorite boss.

How would you describe your favorite boss? Poet Maya Angelou said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." Following that standard, are you the strongest leader you could be? Would you want to work for you? How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of your own communications?

"Don't be too harsh on yourself—that's not the point of the exercise," Congdon said. "But influencing others' careers just as your favorite boss has influenced yours is a very healthy measuring stick." Pay it forward. Praise in public and censure in private. Challenge the superstars on your team, and honor those in the middle of the performance curve by helping them develop their skills, build their resumes with concrete achievements and strengthen their LinkedIn profiles to better define who they are and what they're capable of.

Lesson 4: Verbally address small problems before they become massive impediments.

Communication skills consistently land in the top three qualities that make leaders successful. Yes, communication is for recognition of and showing appreciation for talented people and achievements. And yes, it's also for keeping your team informed and in sync with the rest of the organization. But it is likely most important in addressing minor problems before they mushroom into something far more serious or detrimental to an individual or to your team as a whole. "We've lost our ability to sit around the campfire and pass wisdom down from the elders, and we need to find a safe way to begin doing this valuable experience- and wisdom-sharing again," said Charles M. Vance, Ph.D. and professor of management and human resources at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

And just as important is listening to and soliciting feedback from your employees. Engage in skip-level meetings, or hold focus groups where you can hear directly from your extended reports about how the team is really doing. "Being truly open allows others to have input and potential influence in a form of shared leadership. In other words, mix it up a bit. Have some fun and play with this concept of shared leadership," Vance said. " That's also where the thinking about rules and regulations turns into valuable creativity and innovation. That's where you hone your message about your leadership style and brand."

Lesson 5:  Know how to document significant lapses in performance, conduct or attendance to address the problem and protect your company.

When it comes to employment law and keeping your company out of legal hot water, the record that's being created is of paramount importance. Think about how something might look to a jury six or 12 months from now. Don't be shy about asking for help. And remember that your willingness to escalate matters via progressive discipline and ultimately terminations for cause may be your least favorite thing to do but one of your most crucial duties as a manager in the eyes of your company.

This part of being a leader tests your accountability, consistency and fairness.  It requires you to treat others respectfully while ensuring the highest standards of performance and conduct at all times. "Don't equate niceness with weakness; some of the strongest leaders in corporate America today are exceptionally nice people, yet no one would doubt their effectiveness when it comes to making tough decisions or difficult calls," Vance said. "And don't forget the message that the neglect of addressing performance problems sends to bystanders. Nothing will eat away at morale and camaraderie more than perceived favoritism, inconsistent treatment or low accountability." 

Lesson 6:  Develop your own hard-won wisdom.

Yes, there are leadership books, webinars and workshops out there to learn how to avoid the inherent traps and land mines that may be awaiting the unsuspecting manager. But this is your career and your life: Make it uniquely yours. Be open to the wisdom of others, look for guidance from your own personal "board of directors" and model the behaviors you wish to see in others. Then teach what you choose to learn.

You don't need to be called a master before you can demonstrate mastery. Let leadership, in its highest sense, become your goal. Exercise it wisely in all you do and relative to all the challenges that come your way. You can measure your results in group productivity and accomplishments, turnover, climate survey results, and your ability to attract and retain top talent. You can also measure it by a simple thank-you from someone whose career you've influenced, promotion you championed, or transition you guided with care and respect.

In essence, front-line managers are also HR managers. We're all responsible for employee engagement, culture shift, respect in the workplace, diversity awareness and contributions to the organization's bottom line. Remember that the ends don't justify the means: It's not the result that counts; it's the journey along the way that matters. More people are watching you than you know. You have a greater influence on others than you suspect. Show your wisdom, applied knowledge and competence, but always do so with empathy, selflessness and willingness to make your company a better place. These leadership qualities will help you excel in your career and stand out among your peers. 

Paul Falcone is a frequent contributor to SHRM Online and the author of 75 Ways for Managers to Hire, Develop, and Keep Great Employees (HarperCollins Leadership/Amacom Books, 2016).