Woman standing tall after hearing the State of Frontline Leadership in 2020


The State of Frontline Leadership in 2020

Frontline leaders are liable for more than 80 percent of the workforce. Recognizing the importance of these leaders, this blog digs into the current state of frontline leadership.

Publish Date: December 18, 2019

Read Time: 7 min

Author: Sarah Mogan

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Frontline leaders are liable for over 80 percent of the workforce. They are responsible not only for their own performance, but the performance of their teams and the organization at large. They direct performance and people. They implement strategy and learning, and they encourage innovation and engagement. They are also a major reason employees stay with or leave a company. Yet, their organizations likely did not prepare them to make the transition from an individual contributor to their first leadership role. This information helps us to start to understand the state of frontline leadership as we move into 2020.

Recognizing the importance of frontline leaders, we at DDI dug into data from the more than 9,700 first-level leaders surveyed for the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, as well as DDI's assessment data from more than 13,700 frontline leaders, and recent survey data from over 1,000 leaders, executives, and individual contributors. The findings from this research are captured in The Frontline Leader Project. In this blog, I'll highlight some of the more than 20 findings included in the study report on the state of frontline leadership.

The current state of frontline leadership

Organizations are not prepared at the frontline, and they know it. CEOs are not confident in their organizations’ ability to develop new leaders or attract and retain top talent. But not only is there a lack of confidence, there is also a lack of attention being paid to identifying potential and training those truly interested in climbing the corporate ladder.

The majority of leaders are left out when it comes to development opportunities because they are not formally identified as being high potentials. Our research shows 45 percent of leaders get the majority of development and leaders who are not labeled as hi-pos get less development.

Knowing this, senior leaders and those in charge of learning and development decisions need to recognize that high-potential designation needs to be declared fairly and should not be the only indicator for training enrollment. There is an organizational responsibility to prepare leaders and develop skills that are necessary now and that will be critical in the future.

Who are frontline leaders?

So, if they weren’t fully prepared, how did they become leaders and how can we help them become better leaders? Let’s unpack that by looking at three things:

  1. How did they get here? Why did they take the promotion in the first place?
  2. How do they handle being here? Now that they are in their new role, what’s stressing them out the most?
  3. Why do they stay? What drives people to not only be better but to do better? 

How did they get here? 

The general profile of a first-time leader is bleak: most were surprised by their promotion, some have regrets, and very few plan on moving to the top of the organization. Among the leaders surveyed, 70 percent of those promotions came as an exciting surprise that seemed like the next step in their career.

Another 19 percent said they accepted the role because of the pay raise. Once they are in their leadership role, 40 percent love being a leader but 18 percent regret making the move. And, only 10 percent of frontline leaders see themselves moving into a C-level position someday.

There is hope! That profile can change. We asked leaders how and why they’re struggling. They need help dealing with complexity and ambiguity in their roles, and time working with senior leaders. What's more, they did not have a realistic idea of what being a leader was going to be like for them.

Our research shows that 60 percent of first-time leaders have never had a formal mentor, but we know that mentorship is connected to higher-quality mangers and positively impacts business outcomes.

Mentorship also provides the opportunity for these new leaders to capture organizational knowledge before it is lost because only 22 percent are currently prepared to do so. Leaders early in their journey are prime candidates for mentorship because they are motivated to lead but they do not have the training or support for a sustained and enriching leadership journey.

How do they handle being here? 

Many leaders were surprised by their promotion, but even more admit they were unprepared for and stressed out by the transition. Only 16 percent of first-level leaders said the transition felt natural and 84 percent were stressed by their career progression. Not surprisingly, only 10 percent felt prepared, meaning a whopping 90 percent were unprepared for the transformation.

We know the majority of leaders do not receive training unless they were identified as hi-pos and the majority of leaders did not have a mentor. It’s not shocking then to know how incredibly unprepared they were to become leaders.

Most of their direct reports are stressed out, too: 90 percent, in fact. And their top stressors match their managers’ stressors of time to get everything done and navigating organization politics. When these direct reports become first-time leaders they take these same stressors into their leadership roles with them. Given their experience and perspective, they should be able to aid their teams in mitigating these stressors since they were in the same seat not too long ago. Otherwise, the stress cycle will continue to perpetuate up through the leadership ladder.

Why do they stay? 

So far, we've learned that the early stages of leadership are definied by surprise, stress, and unpreparedness. Here’s where it gets positive, though! Regardless of level, gender, or generation, the workforce is driven by purpose; people want to have an impact on the world around them.

While individual contributors may not always feel inspired by their mangers and senior leaders say that leaders at the front line need to work on their abilities to engage and inspire, we now know what motivates performance in the workplace: purpose (39 percent) and ownership (20 percent).

Good news: Team members appreciate their managers’ willingness and trust to let them do their jobs as they see fit, with 40 percent of direct reports listing it as their managers’ top strength. Task ownership drives performance and new leaders are fostering an environment of responsibility and accountability.

Bad news: 90 percent of HR says their organization has a mission but less than one-third of leaders know about it. Employees want to have a purpose, but they do not have a grasp, let alone any awareness of their company’s mission, so they couldn’t possibly see or feel their impact on their company’s stated purpose.

Ownership and purpose are paramount in the workplace. Task ownership is on the right track, and there is trust and appreciation there. Organizational purpose appears to exist, but it is not effectively communicated.

While not every leader planned to be where they are, now that they are, they must be trained in critical leadership skills. Our research continues to show that frontline leaders want more personalized, longer-term, on-demand development assignments. They are looking for learning to be delivered through a variety of methods, and technology-enabled options are important so learning meets them where they are when they need it. They crave mentorships and human interaction, and they want their development to be experiential and insight-driven.

The Frontline Leader Project showcases the state of frontline leadership: these leaders are driven by their excitement, pride, and confidence. To keep the spark alive, organizations need to prioritize their development, manage stressors, and embrace their purpose. As for frontline leaders themselves, when they accept their promotion, they need to promote their purpose.

To learn more about the state of frontline leadership and to get all the research, download The Frontline Leader Project eBook.

Sarah Mogan is a consultant in the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER). She works with behavioral and perception based frontline leadership research to better understand leaders’ impact at their organizations and on their teams. When Sarah isn’t at work “playing with numbers,” she is taking an excessive amount of pictures of her dog Marty, watching the Pittsburgh Penguins play, and sometimes doing both.

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