Sunday, 6 March 2011

The role played by Line Managers in strategy execution

It is an axiomatic fact that the phase of execution of any business-related strategy assumes a central and pivotal importance for the successful and coherent achievement of the pre-identified organizational objectives. Notwithstanding, more often than not organizations find it difficult to consistently attain in practice their strategy aims so that it can be argued that in many cases a gap between intended strategy and what it is attained in practice actually exists; the most likely and obvious reason for the emergence of such a gap can typically be related to the inadequacy of the execution process. In this instance the direction the employer was expected to go to is different from that in which the organization actually finds itself, by reason of the ineffectiveness of the strategy implementation process.

Albeit the effectual execution of strategies necessarily needs the truly and genuine involvement of all of the organization employees, from the shop floor to the executives directors, particularly important for the successful attainment of this aim is the support and thus the role played by line managers. This is even truer for those organizations not having an HR department where the responsibility to perform and co-ordinate people management activities totally rests with the line managers.

Armstrong (2006) and Smith (2006) argue that the line managers role is of paramount importance for the successful implementation of HR practices and that the “effective implementation of HR strategies depends on their involvement, commitment and cooperation.” This is indeed unsurprising in that line managers unquestionably represent the people within any organization who better know the individuals composing its workforce and spend most of their time with these.  Since organizational strategy is also pursued by means of the implementation of the practices and policies designed and developed within any business, it is sorely appropriate and coherent devolving this activity to the line managers. These individuals are in fact those who have a direct, constant contact with the employees and have thus the opportunity and the capability to motivate, control and promptly respond to the employees’ queries (Ulrich, 1997; Budhwar and Khatri, 2001).


The full and active involvement of LMs both in the HR and business strategies implementation processes on the one hand contributes to enhance their own role, whereas on the other hand enables the business to create and consolidate an “harmonious relationship” between staff and their managers (Gilmore and Williams, 2009). LMs and employees are essentially working together and in synergy for the attainment of a mutual purpose, that is, their organisation success. This approach is clearly reversing the trend once characterizing the practices widespread across the UK, when conflict between employers and their management on the one side and trade unions and employees on the other side was seen as inevitable.

Putting aside the importance attached to HR in the strategy formulation process, which can be indeed taken as axiomatic, Sparrow et al. (2008) stress the importance of strategy execution as a driver for the attainment of competitive edge, suggesting that “competitive advantage lies in the differentiated ways in which organizations ultimately execute their strategies, in which people-related factors play a highly influential role.”


Boddy (2008), to emphasize the significance of the role played by LMs for the attainment of an organization competitive edge, maintains that line managers behaviour affects the business performance and image as they and their reports are in direct contact with the business customers. LMs influence over the HR practices implementation process is clearly remarkable in that they are essentially accountable for communicating and explaining to their direct reports the meaning of the HR practices and how these have to be intended.


The effect produced by HRM policies upon performance is essentially based on the way individuals experience HR practices; their discretionary behaviour is driven or restrained according to the employees’ different perceptions (Kinnie et al., 2005). The same conclusions were reached by Hutchinson and Purcell, (2004), who claim that it is indeed on the basis of their direct experience that employees evaluate HR policies; their performance is thus clearly invariably influenced and affected by these. In practice employees are much more sensitive to the way strategies are implemented, rather than to the way these are formulated. Integrity, consistency and coherence are as usual of paramount importance.


To perform their role well LMs should have and hence show good leadership abilities in that, both for the position they cover and for the wider relational aspect linked to it, these clearly have a considerable impact on the creation of the business organizational climate (Hutchinson and Purcell, 2007). Whether that is not the case, the consequences can reveal to be utterly detrimental for the employer by reason of many individuals deliberately underperforming and ultimately deciding to leave the organization. This occurrence can be aptly summarized in the dicta “employees leave their manager, not their employers” (Buckingham and Coffman, 2005), and “employees join organizations but they leave their managers” (MacLeod and Clarke, 2009).


In order to effectively and properly carry out their activities LMs, as everybody else in a business, need to be truly involved and engaged in the process and not just considered as mere executors of instructions, which they might do not even understand and support. That is possibly why Ulrich et al. (2009), once stressed the significance of line managers in strategy execution, emphasize the importance of transferring on these individuals a high degree of ownership and accountability during the implementation process.


The findings of an investigation carried out by Currie and Proctor (2001) in the UK NHS revealed that to enhance LMs effectiveness, organizations should allow these a certain degree of latitude during the strategy implementation process. This is clearly aiming at encouraging and obtaining their real involvement and participation in the activities these perform.


LMs support could indeed turn to be very useful also during the HR policies formulation process. Since these know better than anyone else in the organisation a large number of employees, LMs should be in a position to predict their direct reports reaction to any policy proposition and able to suggest suitable, valuable, but also viable for the employer, options.

McGuire et al. (2008) suggest that the role played by LMs during the strategy implementation process can also represent a means to devolve them part of the HR responsibility. This devolutionary process implies that the HR accountability for strategies implementation and the links this has with performance, would no more be in the hands of the HR function. Many Authors actually welcome this proposition in that this move may enable HR to focus and concentrate its effort and resources on more strategic organizational aspects and to strengthen and consolidate thus its credibility (McGuire et al., 2008; Gilmore and Williams, 2009).

Albeit a common consent on this topic has not yet been reached, it cannot be denied that devolving part of the HR daily traditional activities to LMs could enable HR to investigate and come up with more effectual, suitable approaches to strategy implementation from a people management perspective (Sparrow et al., 2008).


This activity should more specifically aiming at determining how people management strategy should be adapted and changed in a context in which business models are constantly subject to an evolutionary, whether not revolutionary, process.

The practice of devolving to line managers part of the activities typically performed by HR, nonetheless, is not completely immune from problems. This additional activity may in fact be perceived by LMs as a burden, that is to say as the transfer of supplementary tasks in addition to their typical activities, and might be consequently perceived by them as the employer disinterest in, and lack of appreciation for, their current workload. Johnson and Sholes (2002) claim that more often than not the failure of strategy implementation is due to the circumstance that line managers, who are in charge of this activity, are so absorbed by their day-to-day tasks as to prefer ceding responsibility for strategic issues to specialists, who do not clearly have the power “to make things happen.” This accounts for strategic planning being reduced to an “intellectual exercise” removed from its genuine, original operational reality and as such very likely to fail. On the other hand it should not be neglected the circumstance that the devolvement of responsibility to line managers, already extremely busy, could also produce some undesirable downsides to the HR function itself. By reason of their heavy workload and of their consequent difficulty to prioritise their activities, LMs may opt to neglect HR-related activities to the detriment of the organization HR standards and of the HR overall credibility (McGuire et al., 2008).

The role and activities performed by line managers are extremely important to be exclusively and blindly left on their hands. The need for ascertain that HR policies are implemented by managers “with equity, vigour and belief” should be then duly considered (Richardson and Thompson, 1999). It cannot be taken for granted that all the LMs working within an organisation are, either it is a matter of good or bad faith, acting properly and showing no bias. This is also crucial for the achievement of the intended strategy objectives.


The lack of coherence in the HR policies implementation process is very likely to cause negative consequences on staff morale, attitudes and hence performance. An inconsistent implementation is due to cause worse effects on individuals than the lack of policies itself (Purcell et al., 2003). Before giving line managers such responsibilities, employers should invariably be sure, and should then asses, that all of their LMs have the capabilities required to perform this role and that all of them have gained a clear and full understanding of the policies they are called to help implementing.


For extremely important these are, good leadership skills and abilities are not enough. When executing business and HR strategies LMs can actually fail for different reasons; in addition to their frequent lack of leadership skills these could also feel not to be sufficiently trained to assume such responsibility and unsecure to be able to yield the results expected by the employer. Organizations should do their utmost to enable their LMs to gain the knowledge necessary to properly and effectually carry out this significant task, training is hence key.


McGovern et al. (1997) warn employers against the risk habitually associated with bad strategy implementation, which can ultimately expose businesses to lawsuits and employment tribunal cases.

An example of how important is for LMs to be trained and to gain a clear knowledge and understanding of what results the organisation is expected to achieve is provided by an investigation carried out in two different Tesco stores where the same policies were simultaneously introduced, but where different results were indeed achieved because of the different ways the same practices were implemented (Purcell et al., 2003). Ensure and assure consistency and uniformity is therefore of paramount importance.

Longo, R., (2011), The role played by Line Managers in strategy execution, HR Professionals, [online].