How Frontline Managers Impact Succession Plans


Human kindness, dignity and stewardship are the hallmarks of California-based health care system’s culture, Dignity Health. Dr. Wendy Combs offers some insights about healthy culture creation and the development of employees who embody skills that make them better leaders and create more caring and sustainable organizations.

Combs has more than 20 years of experience in organizational development, leadership development and training. She is passionate about seeing the potential in others and developing them. She has been a coach, mentor and champion to many who currently serves as the regional director of Organization Development for the Systems Office at Dignity Health. She held management positions at Kaiser Permanente, Cisco Systems and Intel Corporation. With a Ph.D. in policy analysis and an M.S. in clinical psychology, she has authored or co-authored a number of books on leadership, facilitation and change. She teaches at both Drexel University and Notre Dame de Namur.

Q: What are the challenges facing frontline managers, and what are the common skills gaps among them?

Dr. Combs: Frontline managers are often more concerned with the technical aspects of the job than the interpersonal skills, partly because they feel they have to demonstrate their expertise immediately to establish credibility. When left to their own accord, they end up focusing on the technical side exclusively and muddle through management without formal training. There are many challenges that they face. Perhaps there’s a worry they’ve overlooked something important. The consequences of errors for managers in health care can be life threatening. It is much higher stakes than in other industries. Sometimes they lack the knowledge of how to prioritize vast amounts of information through competing demands. There’s also the issue of dealing with constant change at all levels of the job and organization. We often work through these challenges even when there’s a low level of investment in training for frontline managers and little time allocated for learning and personal development.

This familiar experience is at the heart of many organizational cultures and can lead to a fundamental skills gap. Most basic skills needed today are based on our ability to nurture relationships. It’s imperative that — as leaders — we recognize the uniqueness in employees, but do so in a respectful way.

Q: What are potential trends or solutions that can help frontline managers?

Dr. Combs: I am a big fan of group learning in the form of mentoring circles where a confidential environment can be created to delve into these challenges. It provides a form of leadership training, reflection, self-directed learning and accountability. It’s often empowering to learn that most managers experience similar challenges and fears. People can learn from — and support each other — under the guidance of a mentor, especially in lieu of a robust leadership development program. There’s an unintended consequence when development isn’t an organizational priority. Without the investment in frontline management, the pipeline of talent becomes very weak, and the emphasis shifts to the need to develop mid-management.

Q: How do non-technical skillsets such as emotional intelligence contribute to individual and organizational development and success?

Dr. Combs: Self-awareness isn’t necessary for everyone when starting out; however, a desire for self-awareness is. We often hear that self-awareness and reflection are imperative to leadership. I would argue that it starts with the front line. Understanding our strengths and limitations comes with our maturation, level of confidence and experience. Frontline managers often are hired and promoted from within because of their technical expertise — even though they may not have much self-awareness. But as long as there is some understanding of their own need for growth, development and will­ingness, there is great potential. Self-awareness is often the first tool that can help you decipher if others are seeing something in you that maybe you didn’t perceive.

From the moment people recognize that they have strengths and flaws — that is the moment when they acquire some humility and, hopefully, the desire for lifelong learning. Emotional intelligence, relationship building and leadership style all require honest self-awareness. Well-intended feedback from others helps to kick-start the reflection process. Building a safe environment with confidentiality and positivity helps set the stage for self-awareness, learning, increased confidence and practice of new skills.

—The author, Michelle L. Maldonado, is a former corporate attorney with more than 17 years of leadership experience in strategic planning, operations and partnership development across the e-learning, technology and online media industries. She serves as associate vice president of corporate strategic relationships for American Public University System and is the founder of its Inspire Leadership Series. To read the full article or to subscribe to American Public University’s Inspire Leadership Series:


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