The defining characteristic of a crisis is uncertainty. First-line managers are a powerful force for surviving a crisis, but only if leaders help them embrace a new role. Every employee wonders how long the crisis will last, which work is most important and if their job is secure. Leaders don’t have all the answers, and employees know it. The role of first-line managers shifts from directing activities that drive performance to gathering ideas that may help the company survive. Executing well-defined processes is out; identifying new solutions is in.

In my research about digital transformation and defeating disruption for the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence in Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change® Series, every distributor leader explained the critical importance of first-line managers. I’ve gone back to that work and talked again with leaders. Four priorities for front-line managers emerged:

  1. Communicate. Perhaps the #1 job of a first-line manager in a time of crisis is to create effective communications. Share what leaders are doing with teams. Help team members talk with each other about what is working and what isn’t. Let employees air their fears and offer them support or get help for them. Listen to your team for ideas and feedback, and ask them to set priorities, talk about customers, talk about progress and talk about the future.
  2. Advocate. First-line managers must stand up for the needs of employees and find solutions for their issues. Sometimes, this role is about getting the attention of leaders that may be focused on crisis priorities. Or, it may be about reaching out across the organization to find what other teams are doing. Employees can feel isolated and on the receiving end of bad outcomes. Every first-line manager must work on their behalf.
  3. Innovate. Workers see problems before they are catastrophes, and they can create workarounds that lead to robust solutions. The role of the first-line manager is to ask for attention and awareness, push for collaboration and figure out if something works one time, will it work every time. Innovation during a crisis is not a fuzzy concept or a top-down program. Innovation is common sense.
  4. Renovate. Organizations have capabilities, and people have skills. During an emergency, it’s essential not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. First-line managers must work with the tools they have and creatively repurpose assets and jobs to achieve outcomes. Flexibility is key. Sharing success with other teams and leaders is essential. Renovating during a crisis is about building on the foundations of what works from the inside out.

An article in TechRepublic offers more sage advice for managing during the Coronavirus, especially as more and more work is done at home. Tell your team how you plan to communicate. Make sure to communicate with every team member every day. Don’t assume that your employees aren’t working and don’t assume they are. Instead, build trust by working with your team. Being inclusive is a place to start. Include everyone on your team on projects, ideation, catch-ups and so forth. Working at home is new for many distributors and a proactive approach will smooth the transition.

Leaders must leverage their first-line managers as a force for change in a time of crisis. First and foremost, leaders must make first-line managers aware of their importance and power. Freeing up dollars can help too. Implementing Zoom or other conference tools for team communications and work-at-home people is essential. On-the-spot rewards for innovative ideas and new solutions can be powerful. Recognizing success and telling team stories builds morale and leads to other solutions. First-line managers are critical for finding an organization’s way during a crisis, and leaders need to make sure they are in the game.

As a Fellow for the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence, I am committed to creating awareness and advancing the practice of B2B innovation in distribution. My new report, Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change® Series, is a roadmap for innovation by distributors. It is much more than a report on trends; it is a foundation for distributor leadership with customers and for revitalizing the value chain. I welcome your feedback, direction and questions. Please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].