Leadership Skills for Frontline Managers

March 20, 2024 | 349 Views

Leadership Skills for Frontline Managers

Felicia White, CHT, Doctoral Candidate

CHART President-Elect | Director, Franchise Training | Scooter's Coffee

Most people in hospitality have experienced both good and bad managers. And when we reflect on those good managers, it’s not the fact that they were the best natural leaders, but what sticks with us is that these people had an ability to make an authentic connection. Improvements in the bottom line results were just the by-products of their people skills.

As part of my doctoral program, I have spent part of the last three and a half years researching frontline leadership development, specifically in the quick service restaurant industry, and connecting that to business results. When we think about scaling up the next generation of leaders, it’s time we highlighted the importance of people skills over operational skills.

Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills

Management training does not develop leaders, leadership training does.

Hard skills are the operational processes–how to make a burger or a perfect latte. But they are also about management, profit and loss, hitting the bottom line, and inventory.

Soft skills is one of those terms that I really don’t care for because those skills are not really soft. It is communication, managing conflict, and relationship building. It’s being present, and engaging with people. As operators, we’ve got to make sure people know how to do their job, but recognize that most managers come from being hourly employees. They know a lot about hard skills, but we need to help them learn how to deal with things like conflict management or communication or giving feedback.

Soft skills are leadership skills. How can we connect leadership skills to the bottom line? Teaching managers to be better leaders pays off. GuestXM Workforce Intelligence reports that companies that spend over 30% of their annual managers’ training on developing their leadership skills had a 10% lower non-management turnover and a 14% lower management turnover.

Developing Leaders

At Scooter’s Coffee, we tested a pilot program last year with Kathleen Wood Partners as part of my research. It was a six-month program that included 11 managers. Each month, there was a different topic that was covered. Each of these topics was connected the core leadership skills I researched: emotional intelligence, communication, delegation, and conflict management.

Leadership Accelerator

They met twice a month. The first meeting was 90 minutes, and the second was one hour. In the first meeting they worked through a particular skill or topic. They were given a tool to utilize and work on when they were back at the store. When they came back for the second session (a coaching session), they would talk about how they used the resource.

Tangible Outcomes

The skills that the managers developed during the program are still being used today, and even carried over into their private lives. For example, they used simple tools like an Excel file to prioritize activities in terms of what they needed to do and those things that were not that important to do. Once they could discern the difference and prioritize, they found they had time for other tasks and could figure out the possible “what-ifs” and plan for them.

One manager shared that they had time to take a vacation for the first time in five years. Another shared how she was able to take a weekend off when the store had a big coffee order since she developed tools that the team could use to handle the task. It was a matter of the team getting communicated to properly and delegating the actual tasks.

Another of the outcomes of the pilot program was an increased level of camaraderie among the managers that participated in the cohort. They shared their triumphs and it worked its way through the whole organization.

I interviewed each of the managers afterwards and they each mentioned that their job wasn’t what they thought it was. They realized their job was really to manage and develop people, not to manage the store. One manager shared that he had an employee that was about to leave the store. After the pilot, that barista not only decided to stay, but was promoted to shift leader.

The two skills that had the biggest impact on performance were delegation and conflict management. Every manager in the program saw reductions in turnover, and also saw increases in customer metrics as well as increased sales on promotions that had been repeated from the previous year.

It’s a fact that most technical training focuses on operations, not critical people leadership abilities. There has been a disconnect between the amount we invest in technical skills vs. leadership skills training. To scale up our next generation of leaders, it’s time to take a hard focus on the “soft” skills.

CHART Community Discussion

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Comments (8)

  1. Patrick Yearout:
    Mar 20, 2024 at 09:22 PM

    This is wonderful information, Felicia! Thank you for sharing it!

  2. Alisha Gulden:
    Mar 21, 2024 at 11:27 AM

    I love this Felicia. I too do not like the word "Soft Skills". I instead use "Power Skills"! These skills are fundamental building blocks to success no matter your industry or career. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Myisha A Smith:
    Mar 21, 2024 at 01:32 PM

    Thank you for this article, I agree with you on the importance of not only recognizing soft skills as an integral part to our front-line leadership training but also consistently incorporating them into our development strategy. I have had more requests from leaders over the last year and a half, asking me to train on emotional intelligence and conflict management. There is a deficit in our upcoming leaders in this area, and I appreciate you speaking to it.

  4. Michelle Mustian:
    Mar 22, 2024 at 11:36 AM

    Great article. We struggle in knowing how to train well and hold managers accountable in this area of "soft skills". Much harder to navigate than say a timekeeping issue, that is cut and dry. I look forward to any future articles that may offer some advice.

  5. Audrey Benet:
    Mar 26, 2024 at 03:11 PM

    Felicia, I would love to hear more about your research and pilot program. Like you, I am not a fan of the term "soft skills". Someone close to me came home one day at the each of tears because their leader had told them they needed to learn some soft skills. When she prodded to understand, was told she needed to learn to be more fluffy. I think these are power skills. They give us a cape when we can learn these skills and can leverage them to help our team members grow and our operations succeed. Incredible that delegation and conflict management were the two biggest impacts on performance.

  6. Kim Zim:
    Mar 26, 2024 at 04:14 PM

    Very interesting article Felicia! Well done!

  7. Michele Lange:
    Mar 27, 2024 at 04:34 PM

    Felicia you are spot on in this research. Our managers do need more power skills. I find that the want out there is to teach managers how to hire people because they are short staffed. This doesn’t help them if they don’t have the power skills needed to be a leader. Conflict management is a top skill needed to manage team members conflicts and navigate guest complaints. Thanks for sharing your research.

  8. Louise Ellis:
    Apr 05, 2024 at 04:28 PM


    Remarkable article! It's eye-opening to see how soft skills complement hard skills in driving not only business metrics but holistic growth and people development. —thank you for the inspiration Dr White!