Many people in the contact centre industry say that having effective team leaders is one of the most important factors of a successful operation. However, the amount of time that organisations spend developing people in these roles, particularly when they are first appointed, varies greatly in practice.
In organisations where team leader development is given a low priority, there can be many detrimental impacts on performance. By referring to the work of John Adair, a leading authority on leadership and leadership development, this (longer) blog discusses the potential impacts of a lack of focus on team leader development in many contact centres. It then examines seven principles that can be used to guide senior managers who wish to review the team leader development structures they have in place in their own contact centres. Some key implications of the blog are:
- A regular observation in contact centres is that team leaders are the most important people in the centre. However, people in these roles often receive little or no development, either prior to their appointment or when they are in position
- In many cases the job of the team leader has become more complex. The lack of development of team leaders can therefore have detrimental impacts in a number of areas of contact centre performance; including customer service, performance management, employee morale and staff retention levels
- Senior managers in contact centres should review the effectiveness of team leader development within their own areas of influence. They can do this by reference to the principles outlined in the paper and assessing their own contact centres’ position in each area
- There is a need for the contact centre to have a clear strategy for team leader development, which is reviewed regularly, to ensure it is consistent with what is required from the role holder.
The Issue ‘Can you point to an organisation that is growing leaders?’ they asked me. Silence fell in my room, and I gazed out of the window, reflecting. ‘I cannot think of anyone,’ I replied eventually.[i] These are the opening words in John Adair’s book ‘How to Grow Leaders.’
A few months ago, I decided it would be interesting to ask a similar question at the start of a workshop involving senior contact centre managers. There were twelve sizeable organisations represented in the room and the attendees had responsibility for many hundreds of staff. In my example, I asked the senior managers if they were able to point to their own organisation and say that they are developing team leaders within their own contact centre environments. As with Adair, my question was met with an initial period of silence.
After a few minutes of going around the table and getting input from each participant, it became apparent that only three of the organisations represented had any form of formal leadership training or ongoing development programmes for team leaders in place.
These were programmes aimed at leaders at all levels in the contact centre and were backed up by mentoring schemes and some form of succession planning. In the other organisations team leaders, including newly appointed team leaders, seemed to receive very little formal training or support.
Most of the senior managers whose organisations were in this category felt that this whole area was key, but conceded that their organisations hadn’t given it the priority it deserves.
To be honest, the results from my informal survey came as no surprise. Working as a management consultant in a variety of contact centres, it is apparent that there are large variations in the amount of effort that organisations put into team leader development.
There are clearly wide gaps between the two ends of the spectrum; the companies that are good at this and those that are not. Small organisations, in particular, often struggle to provide any form of leadership training; but even many larger organisations fail to deliver any form of structured leadership development.
One of the striking features in many contact centres is the lack of training that those in front line leadership roles have received and the absence of any ongoing structured development; particularly given the diverse range of duties they are expected to perform. There were few people in the room at my workshop who expressed dissent when I discussed these observations.
Recent research in contact centres confirms our views about the lack of team leader development that is in place. For example, a study by Contact Babel of contact centres in the UK reports the following about the state of team leader development: ‘Many people say that team leaders are the most important people within the contact centre, as they are what makes the difference between good and mediocre agents.
Yet many team leaders are promoted out of the agent role at which they were good, without being fully taught the skills of management or coaching, including excellent people skills, training and coaching, learning how to balance the demands of their own teams with their operational workload and acting as the ultimate arbiter with difficult customers’. [ii]
To some extent the lack of development of team leaders in contact centres is the opposite of what is expected. The job of a team leader has become much more complex and demanding in recent years.
Many organisations have stripped away immediate levels of support and the team leader has to play a variety of roles; including dealing with more demanding customers, motivating staff, meeting targets, being the first line human resource contact and completing a great amount of administrative work.
Contact Babel recently considered the scope of the team leader role in the contact centre. They report that a team leader will generally be in charge of between 10 and 20 customer facing staff. They list the key tasks that team leaders carry out and their importance to the contact centre as follows:[iii]
|Team Leader Activity||Importance to the Contact Centre|
|Manage agent performance to required service levels||Missing service levels has a major impact upon cost and customer satisfaction|
|Review agent career goals against the requirements of the contact centre||Lack of opportunity for promotion and advancement as the number two reason for attrition|
|Identify agent training needs and provide opportunities for learning||Through a combination of silent monitoring, scorecards and call recording, team leaders can develop a good understanding of their team’s needs, and schedule training (whether e-learning or away from the desk)|
|Increase agent skills through mentoring, coaching and training||On average, mentoring is rated as the best induction course training technique. On an ongoing basis, team leaders will spend around 1.5 – 2 hours per agent per week on coaching|
|Identify the attributes of agents who are performing well and encourage others to follow suit||Top agents outperform poor agents by 3 to 1. Team Leaders identify best practice behaviours and characteristics of top agents (making sure they are aligned with the brand and strategy of the organisation) and propagate these to other agents|
|Troubleshoot technology problems||Team Leaders are the first port of call when a technology issue has been found, and have to sit with agents to see if they can replicate conditions in which the error occurred, documenting this for the IT department to deal with…..|
|Answer questions and distribute relevant information||The team leader is the hub of information: upwards from agents who have found specific issues and answers, and downwards from management who wish to make things known. The team leader needs tools to collate and distribute relevant data in real-time to the right people|
|Create and alter forecasts and schedules||Team leaders need to use workforce management solutions to plan their schedules, but also have the ability to change on the fly as internal and external factors kick-in, otherwise service levels will be missed|
|Handle escalated calls||Team leaders can improve first-call resolution rates by being skilled and supported enough to deal with exceptional and difficult calls which an inexperienced agent simply could not handle|
|Monitor calls – whether random or exceptional – and provide real-time help if required||Real-time monitoring of calls (perhaps looking for voice-stress or key words) can bring in a team leader to listen to a live conversation, perhaps joining in if the business’s needs are not being met or the brand is being damaged by off-message agents|
|Liaise with the rest of the organisation||The team leader, unlike the manager, will listen to and deal with multiple calls each day, as well as understanding exactly what agents are listening to and talking about. This gives the team leader an understanding about what customers are saying, which can be fed into the wider enterprise and learnt from. Team leaders also deal with ad-hoc requests from other departments and areas of the contact centre as they have all of the information and knowledge required….|
|Stand as examples of how to behave and perform||Team leaders are usually top agents as well, and are seen as role models by their team….|
Overall the importance of the team leader in the contact centre is summarised by Contact Babel as: ‘akin to that of a sergeant in the army: the link between the foot-soldiers (agents) and officers (management), who have to understand the strategy and direction of the company, as well as manage the individuals who make up the team that does the actual work.’[iv]
In my experience few senior managers would disagree with the view that team leaders are among the most important and critical leaders in the chain of command in the contact centre. As Contact Babel show, the performance of team leaders impacts on many key areas of contact centre performance.
Perhaps most importantly, team leaders are the people that agents take their lead from and who set the tone in the office. Demonstrating the precise quantitative impact that team leaders have on overall contact centre performance has proved difficult in practice. Anecdotal evidence suggests that team leaders can have a direct impact on levels of employee morale and engagement as well as absence and attrition levels. During consultancy projects over a number of years, I have interviewed many agents and asked questions about their relationship with team leaders. Invariably any criticisms fall into the following categories:
- Team leaders do not communicate with staff and this impacts motivation
- Agents do not obtain the support they require or feel valued
- Performance management processes are poorly or inconsistently applied
- Team leaders do not work as a team and often have different standards or expectations.
It follows that, if any contact centre organisation is serious about growing its leadership capability it is logical that they should start at team leader level. The danger is if organisations don’t do this there will be a major impact on their customer-facing business.
In addition they will have missed an opportunity. They will either have to fill more senior role in the contact centre with people from the outside the company or with internal staff who may have poorly developed leadership skills. John Adair is a leading writer and his work is taught on many management and leadership courses.
In his book ‘How to Grow Leaders’, Adair is also clear that any strategy for growing leaders should start at team leader level: ‘Team leaders are at the base of the pyramid. They are the seedbed from which operational leaders come, and they in turn beget strategic leaders. The natural window of opportunity for training leaders in the generic role/functions/qualities of leadership is when they are on the threshold of becoming team leaders at work for the first time. Miss that opportunity and you may have missed the boat.’[v]
It is useful at this stage to discuss the development of contact centre team leaders in the context of the wider organisational environment. It is often the case that the contact centre is one small part of a larger organisation, generally with a centralised training and development function at a corporate level.
However, if senior contact centre managers believe these arrangements will take the problem of their own team leader training and development away and lay them at the corporate door, they will benefit from re-examining the position. Research by the Chartered Institute of Management, for example, confirms that many people in general front-line management roles lack proper training and skills to do their jobs and that the problem is more widespread than in contact centres alone: ‘One of the biggest problems, apparently, is ‘accidental managers’ – more than two-thirds say they’ve ended up in a managerial role by mistake, while two in five managers claim they don’t really want the responsibility even now.
This may be something to do with the fact that they don’t feel their employer is giving them enough support: 63% have had no management training whatsoever, while a measly 28% have some kind of formal qualification. In other words, management seems to be one of the few professional skills that people are expected to grasp instinctively without any outside help.’ [vi]
Even in organisations that are strong in the area of leadership development, it is common for the contact centre to get left behind. Often the view is that the contact centre is a ‘specialised operation’ different from more traditional functional areas.
In many instances, any training and development that goes on in contact centres is separate from that in the mainstream organisation; either designed and delivered by staff in the contact centre or resource specifically allocated by the training function.
In any event, senior managers will be well advised to work through the principles we are about to describe to assess the team leader development that is in place and understand the implications for their own contact centre operations. Adair’s work is useful for senior managers wishing to assess the state of team leader development within their own contact centres, or for those wishing to develop an approach to tackle the issue.
In ‘How to Grow Leaders,’ Adair outlines seven principles required to grow leaders, starting at team leader level. Describing principles as ‘general statements that are universally or widely considered to be true,’[vii]he recommends that readers apply the seven principles to their own context; in essence completing a self-assessment on the state of play at their own company. It will be useful to describe the principles and add comments about the contact centre industry and specifically the team leader role.
Principle One – Training for Leadership
Adair is clear on the basic principle of leadership development, namely that ‘an organisation should never give a team leadership role or position to someone without training.’[viii] He also has advice for organisations looking to determine how much training they need to give newly appointed team leaders: ‘The answer is not much. All that such nominated operational leaders need before they take up the appointments is the opportunity to recalibrate: that is, to widen the diameter of their thinking about leadership and to relate it to the specific needs of the organisation at this juncture of time.’[ix]
There are generally few reasons to attempt to train newly appointed internal team leaders the technical knowledge needed to do their role. In the majority of cases they will have the knowledge needed and can easily fill in any gaps. There may be some advanced administration or authorisation tasks or similar added responsibilities, but these can generally be learnt in the workplace.
Recently I was thinking of examples of organisations I have seen that are good at training new team leaders. An organisation, which I grew to know well in the ambulance service, has a structured approach to training for newly appointed team leaders. Initially, they send their new team leaders on a short course; two-days over a month or so. The days concentrate on the role of leadership, leadership styles, what is expected from team leaders in the performance management framework and effective communication. Participants also discuss the vision of their organisation, together with some of the core values that are required to be a leader within it.There are plenty of opportunities for team problem solving and role plays. The days are productive and a good starting point. This is sufficient for newly appointed team leaders in this organisation.
Most appointments are internal and team leaders have generally worked in the dispatch and call handling teams which gives them a solid understanding of the technical aspects of the centre. Further training is provided by drawing on leadership training provided by a local university, but this is held back until a few months have gone by.
Adair recommends that the starting point for anyone looking at their own team leader training should be to take an inventory of what is currently provided and, in my experience, this can be a useful approach. Contact centre managers doing such an inventory may find a blurred picture on how effective any training is; particularly if they think hard about what is really required in the team leader role, whether what they have in place supports this and the stage at which any development is provided.
Principle Two – Selection
Careful selection of team leaders clearly makes their subsequent development a lot easier. Surprisingly organisations are often remiss in this area; appointing those with the most technical expertise or those who are ‘next in line.’ Sometimes pressing operational issues cloud the selection decision.
When I was a senior manager in contact centres, my own preference was to appoint new team leaders from internal candidates. Internal candidates who showed leadership abilities were given challenges and greater responsibilities in preparation for advancement and were assessed on how they performed. Positions such as ‘team coach’ or similar, that are in-between agent and team leader, were put in place to facilitate this progression.
I found that making internal appointments was good for morale as it highlighted the importance placed on career development in the contact centre and also created movement for others to advance.
Adair agrees with this approach saying that ‘the natural or best way of selection, of course, is to know and observe the person over a period of time and in a variety of revealing if not testing situations.’[x]
The in-depth knowledge that contact centre managers have of the candidate will give sufficient clues on areas of focus for future development. It’s clear, however, that when appointing external candidates, contact centre management will not have these benefits. With external candidates, they have to find other ways of assessing leadership potential. The common approach used to assessing a candidate’s leadership potential is for organisations to draw up a list of competencies.
Adair warns that any list of competencies must be kept ‘short and simple.’ He identifies five categories:
- Leadership and teamwork – including qualities such as energy, enthusiasm and initiative
- Decision making – problem solving and thinking skills
- Communication skills – speaking, listening and writing
- Self – management – including time management skills and the ability to organise oneself
- Personal qualities – including enthusiasm and integrity.[xi]
In practice, leadership competencies are tested through answers to questions on application forms, interviews and assessment centres. The difficulty is that lists of competencies are often much longer and over-engineered than recommended by Adair. Personally I often wonder if organisations that fall into this category have a clear understanding of the essential requirements of leadership. More often than not all they are doing in practice is making the selection process harder.
A further problem that is sometimes apparent in contact centres occurs when line managers and team leaders become involved in the selection process for new team leaders. The idea that the peer group should be involved in the selection process is commendable.
However, there seem to be frequent examples where people involved in a particular part of the selection process are not adequately trained or accredited to do what is needed successfully. It is all well and good involving those who will be leading or working alongside the new person in their recruitment, but clearly they need to be fully briefed on what the selection process is.
It is therefore probably no surprise that, with excessively complicated leadership competencies to assess against and assessors not aligned on the process, the wrong selection decisions are sometimes made. This makes any subsequent development of newly appointed team leaders harder. It follows that senior contact centre managers should think through carefully how they select new team leaders in practice and identify areas for improvement in this process.
Principle Three – Line Managers as Leadership Mentors
All new team leaders, in my experience, require one-to-one support from line managers as leadership mentors, particularly in fast changing organisations. They benefit by discussing the situations they are finding in their day-to-day environment and working through ideas with a more experienced person.
The mentor role in this context can be summarised as follows: ‘Mentors don’t solve problems; they step forward, when asked, and provide resources and help. They do not hover. They monitor results and measurements, yet serve as a resource to be drawn upon when needed.’[xii]
It would be interesting to survey senior contact centre managers to see where they put ‘mentoring direct reports’ in their list of key responsibilities. My own view is that, with the recent economic climate and the pressures that contact centres are under, mentoring has taken a lower priority.
Contact Babel found that a low level of support is being provided in practice: ‘Team leaders generally receive little coaching and development from their superiors, as many contact centres have flat structures, and senior management has to try very hard to make the time to develop team leaders, without taking them away from the teams for too long.’ [xiii]
The problem has also become more acute in recent years given that, in contact centres, line managers often work in distant locations. Some organisations recognise the importance of mentoring and assign the task to a person from another department, say Human Resources or Organisational Development, or even an external party. The argument is made that effective mentoring requires certain skills and experience which line managers often do not have. It is interesting to note that Adair argues that the essential leadership mentoring conditions are not fulfilled in these cases.
Put simply the outside mentor cannot observe the team leader at work, see how they deal with their people and relate to their peers. I do not wholly agree with Adair on this point. Newly appointed team leaders may find it easier to open up and discuss the situations they are facing with mentors in other parts of the organisation. The rate of change in many contact centres has continued to increase.
In consultancy assignments a common question is to ask managers how they assign their time between different activities. Perhaps it is no surprise that time spent mentoring new team leaders is limited even though most managers would agree that this is an activity they would like to be giving more focus to.
Principle Four- The Chance to Lead
Adair identifies the need for leaders to deal with a ‘set of progressive steps or challenges’ to grow within their roles. He writes: ‘Leaders grow by facing and surmounting even more difficult leadership challenges. If organisations want to grow leaders – or at least create the conditions necessary for growth – they can do no better than to give potential leaders the chance to lead.’[xiv]
Relevant training clearly has a key part to play but the lessons learnt need to be built upon in the workplace.
However, in organisations with flat structures, there needs to be careful planning to ensure new leaders are presented with appropriate challenges and are supported along the way. There is limited evidence when working on consultancy assignments of organisations that implement a successful approach to this issue.
Some team leaders gain experience by working on project teams or in other departments as part of their development. They may also undertake some aspects of their line managers’ role or complete activities like chairing meetings or giving presentations.
However, it is rare to find a team leader in this position who has a clear development plan where they understand the immediate goals and underlying objectives. There is also the danger that, although development plans are discussed and agreed at say an annual review, it takes a great deal of discipline in the current environment to implement them fully.
Coens and Jenkins write: ‘Standing alone, there is nothing wrong with development goals, action plans and organisational support for individual growth – they are all useful and, at times, are necessary. The problem is the wholesale implementation and means of triggering these actions.’[xv]
Principle Five – Education for Leadership
Organisations can provide a number of the elements necessary to grow team leaders, including selecting the right people, giving them training and providing them with chance to lead. There is, however, a missing factor, particularly as team leaders begin to develop their careers.
Adair identifies this as the process of education for leadership: ‘Although the two overlap, often considerably, there is a useful distinction between training and education. The former focuses on the systematic development of skills with a specific role in mind. The latter is more to do with the whole person and encompasses areas as values, attitudes, beliefs and ethics.’[xvi] I highlighted when discussing Principal One, ‘Training for Leadership,’ an ambulance service that sends their new team leaders on a two-day course when they are first appointed.
Their approach to new team leader development is wider than this, however. They view the development provided as an opportunity to get the person off to a good start; particularly in understanding the wider context in which their leadership growth needs to take place. As a starting point, new team leaders are encouraged to train and deliver part of the service which is seen an important to their overall development. This may mean training as a community responder, qualified to deal with emergency calls prior to the arrival of more specialised assistance.
One interesting point is that the organisation also works in partnership with a local university to deliver team leader development. Team leaders, who have started in their role, have the opportunity to participate in a structured programme that takes some months to complete. The programme is a mix between formal teaching, case studies and discussions about things happening back in their workplace.
One of the major benefits of the programme is that it brings new team leaders into contact with external parties; people who work in other companies and sectors and external tutors who bring a different perspective on problems and issues. In addition there are regular one-to-one meetings with line managers where the new team leader has the chance to obtain feedback on how he is doing against the core values that are in place. The overall approach works well.
Ten years or so ago, it was common to meet team leaders who were doing some work in their community as part of their company sponsored programme. My sense is that there is less of this kind of development going on today.
It may be that organisations have fewer opportunities to encourage new team leaders to undertake work in their wider community given the economic environment; the recent recession has meant that often costs have to be cut and these are ‘easy’ areas to make savings. However there are a range of external parties that offer leadership programmes that can provide support. In any event, companies should be mindful of the need to educate their new team leaders in the wider sense.
Principle Six – A Strategy for Leadership Development
Adair is clear about the importance of the need to grow leaders as a strategic priority for a successful business: ‘Effective leadership, I believe, is too important for the present and future success of the business to be left to the human resources department. It is a core activity to grow leaders.’[xvii]
The strategy for team leader development in contact centres should encompass all elements of Adair’s principles. In the contact centre environment some questions that may be asked in reviewing the strategy, or adapted to develop a strategy, include:
- Is there sufficient focus on selecting and developing new team leaders?
- Are the outcomes of selection processes built into subsequent development programmes?
- Are there clear processes to ensure that newly appointed team leaders receive training covering the skills they will need to successfully lead their people?
- What is the process for mentoring new team leaders? Do line managers effectively mentor their team leaders?
- Is there a balance at each level in leadership development between training and ‘in role’ development; such as appropriate project work or secondment?
- Is there a balance between the part that the company will play in leadership development and the part the individual will play?
- Are there any opportunities for team leaders to develop outside of the organisation?
- What is the role of external training providers? Are the services they provide evaluated on a regular basis?
- How is the overall leadership development strategy evaluated for effectiveness?
- How do senior managers in the organisation play a part in showing they sponsor the strategy?
There is no doubt that the contact centre world is a small one. Organisations that are good at leadership development and have a robust strategy in this area become known and admired. To be effective the strategy must be regularly reviewed to ensure it remains relevant; particularly as what is needed in team leader roles changes quickly in the contact centre environment.
Principle Seven – The Chief Executive
Strategic leaders, at the top of the organisation, have a fundamental role to play in the whole strategy of growing leaders at all levels. The difficulty is, of course, that if the senior management of the company do not back fully the strategy for leadership development, both in words and actions, then it becomes much harder to implement.
Adair comments: ‘Where the top strategic leader is not involved in or committed to the work of developing leadership, in my experience, you may as well forget it.’[xviii]
There can be a number of difficulties to overcome in practice. Often the contact centre will be one small part in a larger organisation, ultimately reporting to a senior line manager who has responsibility for a range of other departments. Frequently the contact centre will have a ‘people culture’ that is unique in the organisation as a whole. It is not uncommon for the contact centre to approach team leader development in a different way to how it is done in the wider organisation.
The bottom line, however, is that the senior manager must not only be committed to growing team leaders, he must also communicate this message and play an active part to make the strategy work. If it is part of the leadership development process that team leaders have regular one-to-ones, mentoring and appraisals, then the person at the head of the organisation must engage in these processes with their direct reports.
Moreover, it does no harm at all for the senior manager to discuss the importance of growing team leaders in their communications and have a presence on the agenda on development programmes, such as training events.
Team leader development is clearly a very important part of any contact centre operation in order to maximise performance. However the fact is that organisations differ in how well they develop and grow their team leaders. In organisations with a poor track record in this area there can often be high costs caused by ineffective frontline leadership; both in terms of a lower customer experience and lower employee morale.
There is a need for a robust and effective strategy for team leader development which encompasses training, selection, mentoring, education and the chance to lead as well as the part senior managers themselves play. The strategy needs to be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure it remains effective and current to the needs of the team leader role in practice.
References [i] Adair.J.E.(2009), ‘How to Grow Leaders,’ Kogan Press Limited, London and Philadelphia, 1 [ii] Contact Babel, (2008), ‘The UK Contact Centre Operational Review,’ 6th edition, 86 [iii] Contact Babel, ‘The UK Contact Centre Decision Makers Guide,’7th edition, 40. We have substituted the words team leader where Contact Babel used the word ‘supervisor’ [iv] Contact Babel, ‘The UK Contact Centre Decision Makers Guide,’7th edition, 40 [v] Adair.J.E. (2009), ‘How to Grow Leaders,’ Kogan Press Limited, London and Philadelphia, 82 [vi] ‘Management Today’ ‘Bad Bosses Driving Away Staff’ available at www_managementtoday_co_uk-channel-Leadership-news-966359-bad-bosses-driving-away-staff-.mht [vii] Adair.J.E (2009), ‘How to Grow Leaders,’ Kogan Press Limited, London and Philadelphia, 57 [viii] Adair.J.E (2009), ‘How to Grow Leaders,’ Kogan Press Limited, London and Philadelphia, 70 [ix] Adair.J.E. (2009), ‘How to Grow Leaders,’ Kogan Press Limited, London and Philadelphia, 76 [x] Adair.J.E. (2009), ‘How to Grow Leaders,’ Kogan Press Limited, London and Philadelphia, 92 [xi] Adair.J.E. (2009), ‘How to Grow Leaders,’ Kogan Press Limited, London and Philadelphia, pp 97-99 [xii] Cooper. R. and Ayman S. (1997), ‘ Executive EQ,’ Orion Business Books, Frome and London, 218 [xiii] Contact Babel, (2008), ‘The UK Contact Centre Operational Review,’ 6th edition, 86 [xiv] Adair.J.E. (2009), ‘How to Grow Leaders,’ Kogan Press Limited, London and Philadelphia, pp 122 [xv] Coens.T. and Jenkins.M. (2002), ‘Abolishing Performance Appraisals, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc, San Francisco, 204 [xvi] Adair.J.E. (2009), ‘How to Grow Leaders,’ Kogan Press Limited. London and Philadelphia, 143 [xvii] Adair.J.E. (2009), ‘How to Grow Leaders,’ Kogan Press Limited. London and Philadelphia, 146 [xviii] Adair.J.E. (2009), ‘How to Grow Leaders,’ Kogan Press Limited. London and Philadelphia, 156 Image by John O.Neill