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“Just Average” Frontline Leaders Impact Turnover, Productivity and Profit

New Global Survey Finds Continuous Learning Makes a Difference

PITTSBURGH—Frontline leaders aren’t meeting new job challenges and their organizations aren’t preparing them to succeed according to a new global survey of nearly 300 human resource executives.  The findings reveal that the cost of having “just average” leaders is significant with increased turnover, loss of employee engagement, loss of productivity, and lower profits, according to Be Better than Average:  The State of Frontline Leadership, conducted by Development Dimensions International (DDI) in conjunction with and the Institute for Human Resources.

“Year after year, surveys are released sharing the plight of the frontline leader,” said Richard Wellins, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, DDI.  “While corporations continue to invest in leadership development, this research shows there are still significant deficits.”

More than half of survey respondents (59 percent) indicated poor frontline leadership resulted in turnover of leaders themselves or their team members.  Even more respondents reported a loss of productivity (65 percent) and loss of team member engagement (69 percent).  One in four (26 percent) said their business suffered a loss in profitability due to poor frontline leadership. “Especially in today’s business climate, these findings paint a dismal picture for the pipeline of future leadership talent that organizations need to survive and thrive.  And that pipeline will shrink dramatically if high performers are being turned into disillusioned failures,” Wellins added.

Frontline Leader Selection Left More to Chance than a Plan

Not having a clear picture of the qualifications and motivations of individuals promoted internally into first-time leadership roles results in a success rate that is only a little better than 60 percent (the number for external hires is just above 50 percent). The failure rate is high because organizations rely too heavily on “gut” impressions of performance. Only 60 percent of organizations use interviews to help guide promotions. Worse yet, just 26 percent of organizations utilize tests and a mere 19 percent incorporate simulations to make frontline leader decisions. The survey also confirmed that the organizations that do use these methodologies have better bench strength.

Interpersonal Skills Number One Reason Frontline Leaders Fail

More than half of respondents (56 percent) rated the lack of interpersonal skills as the number one reason for leadership failure. These interpersonal skills—including listening, empathizing, and involvement—ensure leaders build strong relationships with their team and get work done.

Coming in second as a cause for faltering leaders is a lack of strategic skills. Expectations may be changing for this group as organizations get leaner and flatten leadership levels. Many are being asked to execute tactically but think strategically. “Leaders are not receiving the development or support that they need to succeed given these new expectations,” Wellins continued.

Development is Shortsighted

The best HR organizations view frontline leadership as a springboard to higher-level roles and the most promising frontline leaders as future senior leaders. In fact, 73 percent of organizations who reported having very high quality frontline development programs were developing these leaders for future roles. So focusing on preparing high-potential frontline leaders early in their careers for higher-level positions makes sense.

Only 19 percent of respondents felt their leadership development quality was high or very high and only 18 percent felt they had a supply of capable employees to fill frontline leadership roles. Organizations which rated development as low described their frontline leaders as unprepared, indecisive, scattered and scared.  But organizations rating their development quality as high and felt they had a strong bench, referred to their leaders as capable, confident, ambitious and innovative.

The research also found that leadership development should not be a one-time event. Organizations that implemented a “learning journey” approach to training and development (including on-the-job training, learning from others and coaches, and formal training events), increase the perception of their development quality by more than 90 percent.  And when programs are higher quality, confidence in frontline leaders to ensure the future success of the organization grows. Organizations using the learning journey approach to develop their frontline leaders are nearly three times more confident in that level of leadership.

“Organizations who get it right are finding ways to engage their leaders before, during and after the formal development events with the right mix of methodologies,” said Wellins. “Creating a culture of continuous learning in their organizations enables companies to better prepare and develop their frontline leaders, and reap the benefits of being above average.”

View the full research ,Be Better than Average: The State of Frontline Leadership.

Available for interviews

Richard Wellins, Senior Vice President, DDI

Research charts available: Click for full-sized image
1. How do you refer to your frontline leaders? How do you refer to your frontline leaders?
2. Most common reasons frontline leaders fail Most common reasons frontline leaders fail

About Development Dimensions International (DDI)
Founded in 1970, Development Dimensions International, a global human resources consulting firm, helps organizations close the gap between today’s talent capability and future talent needs. DDI’s expertise includes designing and implementing selection systems, and identifying and developing frontline to executive leadership talent. With more than 1,000 associates in 42 offices in 26 countries, the firm advises half of the Fortune 500. For more information:

About, the largest global social networking and resource site for HR Professionals, is the only place where IHR (Institute for Human Resources), HRCI/SHRM and WorldatWork credits can be earned all at the same time for no cost. is committed to providing a deeper understanding of the HR function for their 220,000+ members by offering 23 Certification Programs, 1700+ webcasts, 230+ virtual conferences, guaranteed pass PHR/SPHR exam prep course, blogs, community networks, industry news and advisory boards.

About The Institute for Human Resources
The Institute for Human Resources focuses on education, online certification, and career development in the HR profession. IHR currently covers 23 key HR verticals ranging from Social Media and Employee Communications to Leadership, Rewards and Recognition, Quality of Hire, Health and Safety, and others. Each program provides a full list of education, virtual events, and accredited certification courses for a 12 -18 month period. Education, training, and certification credits are available with “authorized partners” as well as with educational webcasts and award-winning virtual events.