Roles of First-Line Managers

Executive Summary

In any organization – may it be a large corporation or just a small business enterprise – first-line managers usually hold the most important responsibilities. They are in direct contact with all the important enablers of the organization. They maintain superiority over the overall workforce. They are in control of the suppliers of the company. They regularly communicate with the customers. Because of such huge responsibility, first-line managers must possess the right qualities relative to their position.

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As it is already a known fact that first-line managers are detrimental to the success of the organization, many could not help but compare if first-line managers for large corporations perform the same tasks as the first-line managers in smaller businesses. The answer can be both a yes and a no.

In a more generalized perspective, first-line managers in small and big companies share the same responsibilities. First-line managers are always expected to control the ins and outs of supplies, maintain delighted customers, and sustain productive workers. All of these are tasks of the first-line managers, however big or small the enterprise is.

However, when looking at the more detailed key responsibilities of the first-line managers, the difference between the big and small businesses’ first-line managers will become evident. The difference lies in varied factors. First is the number of enablers under the first-line manager and the second is the broadness of coverage of the business (is it international, local, or just area-wide approach). It should be noted that because first-line managers in smaller organizations have a limited number of subordinates, much the tasks will be done directly by the first-line manager himself, while in bigger corporations, there are several enablers with whom the first-line manager can assign them tasks and he will just be monitoring the outputs of each enabler. Likewise, smaller businesses are usually local or maintain just an area-wide coverage of the business, hence the specific tasks are more minimal. In bigger corporations, which normally run internationally or nationally, some several sections or departments will all be under the first-line manager, hence bigger responsibility for him.


First-line managers play one of the most detrimental roles in the day-to-day operation of the company. They see to it that all the objectives of the company, in terms of productivity and people performance and satisfaction are achieved. They serve as the link between the enablers and the company owners, as well as the company to the customers.

With such important roles, it is indeed worth noting to analyze whether the roles of first-line managers in big companies differ from the roles of first-line managers in smaller organizations. This paper is aimed at:

  1. Classifying the competencies expected from the first-line managers.
  2. Categorizing the specific responsibilities of first-line managers and how they vary depending on the size of the organization.

The First-Line Managers

First-line managers cannot be classified as a standardized group (Mintzberg, 1980), this only means that their role expectations vary and/or depends on different situations. However, there are specific classifications of the roles that most first-line managers do. However big or small the organization they belong with, their roles usually fall under these classifications. These include (1) interpersonal roles (leader, liaison, and figurehead), (2) informational roles (disseminator, monitor, and spokesperson), and (3) decisional roles (disturbance handler, entrepreneur, negotiator, and resource allocator). It should be noted that first-line managers at different hierarchical levels place different emphases on the roles in such a way that there can be differences in the perceived importance of each of the role orientations and can be influenced by hierarchical level (Mintzberg, 1980).

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Patricia Buhler (1998) on the other hand has a more generalized view on the roles of the first-line managers. According to her, because it is very evident that the economic trend nowadays is changing speedily, it is also evident that structures of the many businesses also changed, thereby affecting and also altering the roles of the workers. Needless to say, the roles of the first-line managers have also changed to adapt to the changing times.

It was suggested in Buhler’s article (1998) that there are four primary functions of the managers (first-line managers included): planning, controlling, directing, and staffing. From the very beginning that organizational hierarchy and/or structure was introduced, this has been the managerial functions that are being followed, only not, there is some touch f modernization added to it.

First-line managers have always been tasked to take part in planning to and for the company. Not so long ago, it was believed this planning varied by organizational level. That is top management planned in the longest time horizon and engaged in more strategic planning. Middle managers planned in a medium time horizon and lower-level managers engaged in more operational planning that was a shorter term. Today, however, all managers are being asked to engage in strategic planning. The responsibilities for strategic management are being delegated down the organizational pyramid with all managers responsible for taking a long-term view of the organization (Buhler, 1998).

In terms of staffing, first-line managers are expected to man directly and see to it the right person is placed in the right job within the organization. This staffing responsibility today also involves ensuring the person-job-organization fit is made. This means first-line managers are not only concerned with staffing the position with the right person but also ensuring the person “fits” with the organization taking into account organizational culture. Two decades ago this fit was not part of the staffing decision-making process. Today, however, it is recognized certain personality types fit better with specific organizational types (Buhler, 1998).

Controlling has always been the responsibility of the first-line managers. Control today is tied to technology. The role of control has been changed with technological advancements. Some of the control has even been “replaced” with computers, as they monitor employee performance on jobs that were once monitored by human managers. The role of control has also been reexamined from an ethical perspective. That is, employees do not want to be controlled and the move is toward self-control on the part of employees (Buhler, 1998).

The directing function is the last, but certainly not the least important role that first-hand managers do. It is the first-line manager’s responsibility to determine the one best way to perform the job and the worker’s responsibility was to perform the job in that one best way. The manager, then, directed the employee in how to perform the job. Much of the decision-making was removed from the employee’s hands. However, it should also be noted that first-line managers should also engage themselves in coaching and mentoring rather than just the traditional directing (Buhler, 1998).

A variation on the Specific Responsibilities of the First Line Managers

First-line managers’ responsibilities may vary. Such variation can be the size of the organization itself. Using the size of the organization as an example, large companies and small companies have very distinct differences which include:

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  • Number of employees. The number of employees or staff in larger organizations may be more than the number in smaller companies.
  • Scope of operation. The scope of operation of larger companies may be broader (like nationally or even globally) than smaller companies (which can only be on an area basis or just regional).

Hence, it can be expected that the specific responsibilities of the first-line managers in the smaller company can be entirely different from the specific responsibilities of first-line managers in large corporations.

Deliver and Monitor Service to the Client

First-line managers’ first specific key responsibility is to ensure that the products and/or services are delivered at the right time, in the right manner, and at the right price to their intended consumer (Office of the Commissioner for Public Employment). They must ensure that the client will be greatly satisfied with the product or service and with the way it was delivered to him/her. However, it should not be expected that it will be the first-line manager himself who will go personally to the customer, and deliver the product or service or accept the payment. His responsibility will be to assign the personnel who can provide the needed product or service and monitor this personnel’s performance.

This specific key responsibility will be slightly different depending on the size of the organization. In smaller companies, a first-line manager can still be the person who will deliver and provide the needed service or product for the customer. She will personally assist the customer and ensure that he/she receives what she needed. In smaller companies, the first-line manager can also assign one person to deliver or provide the product or service, but it will be the first-line manager’s sole responsibility to monitor if the service or product was delivered in the proper context.

In larger corporations, the first-line managers have various personnel to ensure that the delivery of products and services is done and monitored. Some enablers will specifically provide the product or service and there are specific enablers who will monitor if the task has been successful. However, from time to time, the first-line manager will check and evaluate the enablers’ performance.

Usage of Resources

First-line managers have the power and the control to utilize the resources of the company to achieve its goals (Office of the Commissioner for Public Employment). He can assess whether the company will benefit greatly if a particular resource will be allocated and/or used or not. Because of this, the first-line managers can request for replenishment of supplies for the company and he, too, can utilize them whenever he deems it necessary for the business and the people.

In larger organizations, first-line managers are authorized to use or allocate the company resources to achieve the short and long-term goals of the company. He may have several subordinates under him, who can actually request supplies and then allocate each resource and distribute them to each area or department. It will be the first-line managers’ responsibility to sign and/or approve the requests for resources of each department and make sure that the request is ethical and will be used to benefit the company. Even if he has different subordinates who are personally assigned to do the task, it will the first-line manager’s accountability to ensure that the in and out of company resources is working smoothly.

In small organizations, first-line managers are still responsible for the smooth flow of company resources. Only this time, he may have limited subordinates to do particular tasks like requesting supplies and then allocating them. In some instances, first-line managers may be the actual person who will request and re-allocate the resources. He may also be the one to monitor that each employee has enough resources or supplies needed for his productivity.

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Work Unit Plans

First-line managers are particularly responsible for the development and implementation of work unit plans (Office of the Commissioner for Public Employment). The plans will have to be aligned with the company’s vision and mission. It will be the first-line managers’ task to make sure that each work unit’s plans are set and are properly executed. To ensure proper execution, it will also be the managers’ responsibility to evaluate if the plans are achieved in the desired fashion.

In larger companies, there is usually a group head who initiates the planning. Normally it is done by area or by specific departments. Each plan will be agreed upon by all the enablers of each department or area and then the group head will be presenting the final plan to the first-line managers. Thus, the first-line managers will have to check and validate if the area or department’s plans are aligned with the overall goals of the company. In terms of implementation and/or exaction of the plans, the group head will also be the one to evaluate the performance of each enable in each group unit and report the performance to the first-line managers.

In small companies, normally there are no group units nor group heads as it will be the first-line managers themselves who will initiate the planning and its execution. It will also be the managers’ job to evaluate the performance of the subordinates if there are any.

Information Gathering and Analysis

First-line managers are also expected to gather information and analyze it for the company’s benefit (Office of the Commissioner for Public Employment). Information that is needed by the company may be about the competition, the market, and market trends as well as the movement of the economy relative to the company’s performance and growth.

For larger companies, there are information researchers and analysts who are responsible to do these tasks, however, every information that will be gathered will be reported to the first-line managers. It will then be the managers’ job to assess the information provided by the researchers and do necessary action regarding it. He can either use the said information as a basis for the planning of the company or he can use it as the reference point for the next steps or movements needed by the company. The bottom line is, it will be the first-line managers’ call on when to gather information, how it will be gathered, and what to do with it once presented.

In smaller organizations, the first-line managers are usually the person who also gathers information for the company. It will be the first-line manager himself who will search about the market, the market trend, and/or about the strategies of the company’s competitors. After thorough research, it will also be the first-line manager who will assess what to do with the information he has gathered. He has to make sure that whatever action plan he will make relative to the information will always be to the company’s full advantage.

Work Priorities and Professional Development

As first-line managers, they are responsible to manage personal work priorities and set room for professional development (Office of the Commissioner for Public Employment). They are to make sure that work assignments are given to the right personnel taking into consideration the strengths and comp entice of every personnel. At the same time, first-line managers need to ensure that wages are given accordingly and salary appraisals are available whenever needed.

In larger companies, there is a human resource department as well as group heads who check and evaluate each employee and make sure that wage and a salary appraisal are given properly. More so, group heads and/or human resource departments propose training and developmental activities for each employee to make sure that their skills will be upgraded and strengthened. It will then be the first-line managers’ task to assess the proposal for training and/or development and approve it if he deems it applicable for his people.

In small organizations, on the other hand, first-line managers are the very people who look for venues to improve their people. If he has some people under his supervision, he will also be the one to make sure that they are receiving the right wage and that there are rooms for salary increases.

Innovation and Change

First-line managers are the very first persons who are expected to promote innovation and change for the company (Office of the Commissioner for Public Employment). They are to make sure that the ever-changing requirements of the industry and the target market are addressed. To do this, changes and innovations are necessary from time to time. And because the first-line managers are the person who monitors the information for and about the company and that they are the one who maintains control over the resources, it is just to be expected that first-line managers also have the power to initiate a change of the company.

In larger corporations, there are normally various protocols and steps before an innovation or change can be proposed and put into action. Several people will study if a change is necessary and then there are different sets of people who will do the proposals for change. The responsibility of the first-line manager is to study each proposal and choose the most appropriate one for the company. In some instances, the first-line managers will have to seek the approval of the higher management, such as the company owners or the stockholders, before any change can be implemented.

In smaller companies, normally it will be the first-line manager himself who initiates a plan for innovation. He can either implement such a change or will have to talk with the company owner first before the change takes place. The big difference here is the fact that there are lesser protocols when it comes to smaller companies.


First-line managers hold one of the most important positions for the company. The specific tasks of the first-line managers may vary according to the size of the organization, however, the fact remains that they are the very person accountable for the company resources, for the people or employees, for the level of productivity of the company, and for the overall performance of the company.


Atkinson, J. 1985. ‘The Changing Corporation.’ New Patterns of Work. D. Clutterbuck, ed. UK: Gower Publishing Company.

Beder, S, 2001, ‘Selling the Work Ethic’, Australian Rationalist 55, 2001, pp. 8-13.

Buhler, Patricia. 1998. “A new role for managers: the move from directing to coaching.” National Research Bureau.

Cappelli P., 1995, ‘Rethinking employment’, British Journal of Industrial Relations (UK),vol. 33, no. 4.

Cappeli, P, 1999, The New Deal at Work. Managing the Market-Driven Workforce. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Mintzberg, H. 1980. The Nature of Managerial Work. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Office of the Commissioner for Public Employment. “The South Australian Public Sector: Draft First Line Manager Competency Framework.” Government of South Australia.

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