Wanted (Badly): First-Time Bosses

The pandemic, along with digital transformation, has created a shortage of frontline managers. What big firms are doing about it.

On the surface it sounds like a great job: work for a large retailer, manage a team of hundreds, and get paid around $200,000 annually.

But big firms in retail, healthcare, and elsewhere are discovering that besides having difficulty filling individual contributor roles, there is an acute shortage of front-line managers—roles that are well-compensated but particularly challenging. In one case, the giant retailer Walmart is creating a program to recruit and train college graduates to become store managers. Trainees will follow an accelerated two-year track into the top store job. “Frontline leaders have experienced two and a half years of trauma, and the way they do their jobs has changed dramatically,” says Christian Hasenoehrl, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who works with Walmart. 

Whether in a store, factory, office, or hospital, being a frontline manager has never been particularly easy. Frontline managers are challenged on two sides: by individual employees who might be tough to motivate, and by higher-level bosses pressuring them to increase productivity. A couple of major companies stand out for their trainee programs, but experts say organizations have generally not been great at training first-time managers. "A bunch of firms are trying to play catch-up," says Gregory Button, president of Korn Ferry's Global Healthcare Services practice.

Making the frontline manager job even harder is the disruption of the past five years. In the office setting, many staffers are now working remotely. In retail, consumers have radically changed what, when, and how they buy. This has forced frontline supervisors to transform how companies do business and to focus on the safety of employees at stores and warehouses. 

There’s evidence that the current crop of frontline managers may be partially responsible for so many employees quitting during the Great Resignation. One 2021 study found that 11% of frontline workers quit jobs during the pandemic primarily because of a bad relationship with a boss. “The hardest job for a first-line manager is solving, and resolving, problems,” says Linda Hyman, Korn Ferry’s executive vice president for human resources. 

In the past, most store managers worked their way into the role by doing other jobs in the store, like cashier, stocker, and salesperson. But in an era where self-checkout kiosks abound and more people buy their goods online before picking them up at stores, working in traditional roles won’t give aspiring managers the skills they necessarily need, Hasenoehrl says. 

To succeed, new frontline managers will need to be able to resolve conflicts, build collaboration within teams, recognize how technology can be used to solve problems, build an inclusive environment, and motivate. “The days of coming in, giving orders, then going back to your office to read the paper are over,” Hasenoehrl says.