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Great Organizations | Great Leaders

Average Just Isn’t Cutting It!

A new study of HR executives shows why many organizations are not doing a good job of developing their frontline leaders.
Average Just Isn’t Cutting It!

Organizations are increasingly recognizing the critical challenges confronting frontline leaders. Although many are making significant investments in a variety of first-level development programs, studies still show that most frontline leaders have only average leadership ability—which hurts productivity, limits employee engagement, causes high turnover, and leads to a host of other problems.

To find out why frontline leadership continues to lag, DDI partnered with in a joint survey of 291 HR executives in the U.S. and Canada. Analysis of the results showed that not all development programs are created equal. The most successful programs provide frontline leaders with the abilities most lacking, namely interpersonal and strategic skills.

The complete results of this survey are captured in our new study, Be Better Than Average: A Study on the State of Frontline Leadership.

Among the key findings:

Most Frontline Leaders Are Average Because Their Development Is Average

Only 19 percent of respondents felt that the quality of their leadership development is high or very high, and only 18 percent felt they had a supply of capable employees to fill frontline leadership roles. This paints a dismal picture for the pipeline of leadership talent required for future organizational success. HR executives who rated their leadership development as low generally described their organization’s frontline leaders as unprepared, indecisive, scattered, and scared. Conversely, HR executives who rated their organization’s development quality as high referred to their leaders as confident, ambitious, innovative, and dependable (Figure 1).

Figure 1: How do you refer to your frontline leaders

Selecting Frontline Leaders Is Left to Chance

More than 80 percent of promotions to frontline leader roles are based on manager recommendations. Only 60 percent of organizations use interviews to help guide promotions. Worse yet, only 26 percent of organizations use tests, and just 19 percent employ simulations to make their selection decisions for frontline leaders.

Could this be one reason why nearly half of all frontline leaders fail? We believe that it is.

While manager recommendations are important, placing too much emphasis on them, especially in the absence of various assessment tools with higher validity, can lead to poor decision-making.

Behavioral interviewing is a validated method on which to base promotion decisions, but it’s not necessarily fail-safe for building bench strength. This is likely because not all interviews gather the behavioral data critical to making sound promotion and selection decisions. Organizations that use simulations and tests were much more likely to say they had a strong rather than weak bench (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Comparison of selection tools

The Two Key Reasons Why Frontline Leaders Fail

When we asked why frontline leaders commonly fail, 56 percent of the HR executives cited a lack of interpersonal skills (Figure 3). These skills include effective communication, listening, empathizing, and involving others, and they ensure that leaders build strong relationships with their team, and get work done.

Figure 3: Most common reasons frontline leaders fail

The second most-cited reason for failure (identified by 33 percent of HR executives) was a lack of strategic skills. This was a bit of a surprise to us. One possible explanation is the changing expectations organizations have for their frontline leaders. As organizations have become leaner over time and have reduced the number of leadership levels, they have increasingly looked to their frontline leaders to strike the right balance between tactical execution and the ability to think and act more strategically. These new expectations, however, have not been accompanied by adequate support and access to information about organizational strategy.

Frontline Leaders Lack the Most Critical Skills for the Future

When asked about the skills their frontline leaders demonstrated most proficiently, HR executives mentioned technical and functional ability, leading project teams/special task forces, and leading across multiple countries—skills they also said were least important for the future. Compounding the problem, HR executives said their frontline leaders were least effective in key future-critical areas: coaching and developing others, driving change, and improving employee engagement.

Leadership Development Is Often Short-Sighted

While not all leaders will rise through the organizational ranks during their careers, the best HR organizations view frontline leadership as a potential springboard to higher-level roles including, in some cases, senior leadership.

Generally, the higher that HR executives rated their frontline leadership development, the more likely they were to focus on developing those leaders for future roles. For example, 73 percent of respondents with very high-quality frontline development programs say their leaders are developed for future opportunities (Figure 4). At the same time, respondents who gave low ratings to their frontline leadership development said those programs focused much more on current-role mastery.

Figure 4: Development quality by focus of program

Training Should Not Be a One-Time Event

The research made clear that training should be seen as an integral part of a frontline leader’s “learning journey.” These journeys should be closely aligned with the challenges facing an organization and should fully consider what leaders must do to drive the business forward. This journey takes place over time, and consists of multiple formal and informal learning components and experiences. It begins with a review of relevant organizational and assessment data, the business drivers, as well as the target audience’s development gaps. This information can then serve as the starting point for designing the learning journey.

The good news: Our research found that the more organizations develop their frontline leaders through the learning journey concept, the higher they rate the quality of their development programs. Organizations that instead use a menu of event-driven development options tend to give low marks to their leadership development programs. For example, 91 percent of the highly rated programs used the learning journey approach, while only 9 percent of the highly rated programs used the event-driven approach (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Quality of development programs by type

In addition, HR executives tend to have far more confidence in their frontline leaders when the development programs use the learning journey approach. Seventy-nine percent of HR executives whose organizations use the learning journey approach had very high confidence in their frontline leaders, while only 29 percent of executives whose organizations use the event-driven approach expressed the same level of confidence in their frontline leaders (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Confidence in frontline leaders by development program type

Why such a big difference? Learning journeys are more sustainable because they extend beyond development events. Organizations that get it right are finding ways to engage their leaders before, during, and after formal development events—with the right mix of methodologies. They create meaningful development events that translate into a culture of continuous learning in which leaders are getting the support and development they need, even when they don’t realize it.

 Debbie McGrath is founder and chief instigator,

Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D., is senior vice president at DDI.

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