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What Are the Greatest Challenges Frontline Leaders Face?

by Mark Busine and Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

DDI's Leadership TournamentIn the next few weeks, when we launch DDI’s Leadership Tournament (our own leadership equivalent of March Madness), you’ll have the opportunity to share your opinion on what the greatest challenges are that frontline leaders must grapple with every day. But as you begin to think about why it’s so hard to be a frontline leader, also consider why it’s so important to be a frontline leader.

Every day, leaders at all levels face critical leadership moments that define the success of their teams and the organization. These critical leadership moments can be big transformative moments like stepping into a new role and executing a key business priority or small, micro moments, like a tough team member performance conversation or a customer pricing decision.

The impact of these critical leadership moments can be profound, not only for the organization but for the individual leader who must navigate myriad stakeholder expectations, organizational interests and customer demands. And while the role of leadership is a privilege and opportunity, we should not underestimate the personal impact of these critical leadership moments on leaders themselves.

Our research into leadership transitions shows that a leadership transition is among life’s most challenging adjustments, ranking up there with personal illness and major life events, and that just one in three leaders feels effective at handling the challenges associated with a new leadership role.

Frontline leaders—ignore them at your peril

For first-time and frontline leaders, the impact can be particularly acute. They confront a set of challenges and expectations that are in total contrast to the role they have been performing as an individual contributor. As a leader they must relinquish personal responsibility in favor of getting things done through others, they must direct team activities, they must find ways to tap into the individual motivations and aspirations of team members and they must represent the company as part of the leadership group.

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Frontline leaders comprise around 50 to 60 percent of the leader population, but perhaps more importantly they directly manage around 80 percent of the workforce. When you consider that managers account for 70 percent of variance in engagement, the impact of frontline leaders in today’s knowledge-based organizations is significant. But here’s the problem: 60 percent of frontline leaders say they have never received any training or preparation for the role, two-thirds of frontline leaders felt unprepared for the role and 87 percent of first-time leaders feel frustrated, anxious, and uncertain about their role. As a result, it should be no surprise that according to DDI’s 2018 Global Leadership Forecast, just 33 percent of leaders rate the quality of frontline leadership as high.

So, in today’s organizations, where a company’s value is inextricably linked to the contribution of its people, why do we continue to put the company’s most valued assets in the hands of the least prepared ?

Preparing frontline leaders for their critical leadership moments

To address frontline leaders' development priorities and prepare them for the challenges of the role, we need to address two fundamental questions:

  1. What are the critical leadership moments that frontline leaders confront?
  2. How do we prepare them to address the specific challenges that accompany those critical leadership moments?

The critical leadership moments—and challenges—of the frontline leader

Based on our research and experience, we have identified four key areas that represent the critical leadership moments and major challenges frontline leaders confront in their role. Let’s explore them.

Bringing out your best self
  1. Giving Up Control
  2. Conflicting Priorities
  3. Time for Development
  4. Having a Clueless Boss

For many leaders, recognizing one’s own strengths and struggles is the first prerequisite to unlocking the many benefits—both individually and organizationallyof a growth mindset. Leaders unable to bring out their best self will be wholly unprepared to in turn bring out the best in others.

The first of the challenges associated with bringing out your best self, giving up control, is one of the most common ways new leaders fail to fully transition from their prior roles as individual contributors. Instead of moving on as they are moving up, they remain fixated on personally performing the tasks they should instead be delegating to trusted direct reports. Not only does this hold the leader back, it clogs talent pipelines since little knowledge is being transferred.

Conflicting priorities generate their own form of pressure for frontline leaders faced with complex decisions about which actions to pursue and where to direct resources. All the while, knowing that any such decision may be criticized and second-guessed by others.

With only 35 percent of organizations having high-quality, effective development planning in place for their leaders, it’s not surprising that leaders rarely have access to or make time for professional development. With the accelerating pace of business, new digital technologies reshaping work, and the imperative for career-long learning, development can no longer be discretionary.

Many leaders encounter managers who lack familiarity with key knowledge areas. In some cases, leaders’ views become so extreme that they see their clueless bosses unable to support, much less advise, them on the business objectives they’re seeking to achieve.

Engaging and inspiring your team
  1. Giving Tough Reviews
  2. Sharing Unpopular News
  3. Managing Friends
  4. Motivating Employees

Perhaps the most significant change for a new frontline leader is the need to lead others. As an individual contributor the focus is on your own success, but as a leader you must now mobilize, motivate and coach others to success.

Dealing with the challenges around engaging and inspiring your team requires a fundamental shift in mindset, and it also demands a new set of skills and behaviors such as delegating, coaching, managing performance, and motivating others. In the era of knowledge-based organizations, these are high stakes skills.

For example, giving a tough review that goes bad can have a devastating impact on the individual, team, and organization. Frontline leaders confront these small but profound critical leadership moments every day; like sharing unpopular news with team members, managing friends or former peers, motivating employees, asking someone to take on a new responsibility, or coaching a team member on a new task.

While leading people and teams has always been central to a frontline leader’s role the context is rapidly changing. By 2020, five different generations will share the workplace. While leaders will need to understand and accommodate generational differences, simple generalizations based on age will not work. It will become increasingly important to understand and manage individual differences, rather than generalize across any group (generation, ethnicity, professional discipline, gender, etc.). Employee expectations also continue to evolve, and while everyone brings his or her own expectations, it’s safe to say that employees today are:

  • Looking for challenging and meaningful work.
  • Mobile, conditioned to change, and impatient.
  • Concerned more about loyalty to their profession and career than to the organization.
  • Less accommodating of traditional structures and authority.
  • More concerned about multiple life domains.
Driving results through partners
  1. Office Politics
  2. Changing Old Habits
  3. Handling Team Conflict
  4. Influencing Others

With the growing interdependence of work and the rise of multidisciplinary project teams few leaders can survive—much less thrive—on their own. Their success becomes inextricably intertwined with their ability to identify, foster, and sustain partnerships within their teams and with other workgroups.

Of these challenges associated with driving results through partners, one of the toughest for many frontline and first-time leaders is the unexpected influence of office politics. Though present in some form at all levels of the organization, who you know sometimes means more than what you know—and it gets worse in the leadership ranks. This puts pressure on leaders to gauge and, in many cases, recalibrate their relationships with others, and to introspect on their own political savviness.

Changing old habits in how leaders interact with others is a second driving results through partners challenge. Leaders often need to re-evaluate who they interact with and what information they share—in some cases past patterns of behavior need to be adjusted accordingly.

For leaders, their partnership network begins with their own team, and conflict within these teams can dramatically cripple group effectiveness. A leader’s approach to handling team conflict sets the tone for employees in whether they’re expected to resolve conflict on their own, and when a leader will step in to resolve the situation. There’s no one right way for leaders to handle these issues as they vary by team composition and circumstances. Left unchecked, however, team conflict will rapidly fester and crush team morale and performance.

Frontline leaders often must work with peer leaders who may or may not share the frontline leader’s team’s goals. Effective strategies to influence others are typically rooted in well-planned networking tactics that in some cases take years to establish. The vast range of choices for a frontline leader about where they focus their networking and influencing energies makes this a daunting challenge for many.

Powering business success
  1. Hiring decisions
  2. Impact of my decisions
  3. Adopting new technologies
  4. Driving change

The prevailing view is that frontline leaders execute the strategy and direction set by senior management. However, this is no longer sufficient. In a work environment characterized by shorter, more-iterative operating cycles, digital disruption, hyper competition, globalization, and shifting customer expectations, organizations need to move faster, drive innovation, and take calculated risks. This means decisions that were once the domain of senior leaders have been pushed further down the organization.

Frontline leaders are increasingly required to make decisions and take actions that have significant strategic and cultural implications—as reflected in the four challenges that define the need to power business success. In a study of transitional challenges, DDI found that leaders transitioning to the first level of leadership identified strategic thinking as the most important new skill.

This is not a skill that many would have associated with a frontline leader’s role. However, the success of a frontline leaders is increasingly determined by the efficacy of their decisions in a range of moments, such as hiring decisions, decisions about products and markets and decisions that directly impact customers relationships. On top of that, they have to consider the impact of their decisions while having to learn and adopt new technologies and drive change within their team.

While decision making has always been fundamental to the role of leadership, the subtle difference in today’s environment is that leaders can’t always apply rational models of decision-making; they need to make quick judgments, and this leaves them open to the vulnerabilities of human behavior, such as unconscious bias. Living with the tension of these judgments and decisions can be extremely challenging, particularly for new leaders.

Don’t leave development to chance or individual curiosity

Preparing frontline leaders for their critical leadership moments can be challenging but leaving development to chance or individual curiosity is not an option. The business risks and implications are too great. So, here are a few thoughts on how to get frontline leaders ready for their critical leadership moments—big and small.

Provide frontline leaders with relevant learning experiences (real and simulated). It seems like an obvious statement, but too often leaders are presented with frameworks they do not see as immediately relevant to their own business context or the situations they face on a day-to-day basis. Learning must address real situations and challenges that a frontline leader experiences—and it needs to happen quickly in any learning context to ensure leaders are engaged.

One way to bring deep relevance to the learning experience is through experiential or immersive learning. For example, using virtual reality and group-based simulations to facilitate exposure to a range of different situations and contexts relevant to the role of a frontline leader. For new or emerging frontline leaders, this could include exposing them to situations they haven’t had deal with previously and/or situations that might be difficult to access in real life.

Drive personalized learning through diagnostics and insight. Personalization is driven by data and insight, so companies should deploy a range of diagnostic approaches that focus on all aspects of the frontline leader success profile, including personal attributes. This includes helping individuals to understand the areas that will contribute to success (enablers) and areas that might derail success (derailers).

Before beginning a learning journey, an individual might undertake an assessment to ensure he or she enters the program with a clear understanding of strengths and development priorities, specifically related to the areas to be covered. At various times throughout the learning journey, insight tools can be used to build awareness in specific areas or to check on progress.

Build the multiplier skills. It is impossible to prepare leaders for every single situation and challenge they will confront as a frontline leader. The answer lies in what we call the multiplier skills. These are the skills that have the power to increase impact across multiple frontline leader situations and challenges. They are also the skills that will serve a leader through all stages of their career. We have identified three core multiplier skills:

  • Interaction Essentials— The ability to facilitate high-quality interactions, through a diverse range of mediums and with a diverse range of people.
  • Business Judgement —The ability to make sound business judgments aligned to the cultural and strategic priorities of the organization.
  • Personal Mastery —The ability to understand, manage, and leverage one’s abilities, personality and motivations to maximize personal impact and effectiveness.

Get closer to the micro moments. Technology is quickly opening new ways to support leaders at their most critical moment of need—just in time. With rapid advancements in mobile technology and artificial intelligence, it’s now possible to embed learning in the job, respond to an individual’s learning need, and even anticipate that need. This is what Bersin by Deloitte calls microlearning and it’s focused on solving problems as opposed to learning a new skill.

Outside of work, the GPS is a great example of this. The GPS guides you through the process of getting from point A to point B rather than expecting you to learn the route. But the promise of AI in learning and performance is evident in the way GPS technology has evolved. GPS systems now collect and leverage data in real time to incorporate updates based on current road and traffic conditions.

Vote on the biggest challenge frontline leaders face today. Follow @DDIworld on Twitter and check out the hashtag #DDITournament.

Mark Busine Vice President, Product Management, for DDI. Passionate and curious about the field of leadership, Mark is always looking for creative ways to solve client problems. This creative orientation extends outside work where he dabbles in the fine art of songwriting, convinced that a worldwide number-one hit is just around the corner.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D., is DDI’s Chief Scientist and Vice President. Evan leads the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER), was the lead researcher for the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, and is a frequent author and presenter on leadership assessment and development, HR analytics, data visualization, and workplace technology.

Posted: 19 Feb, 2019,
Talk to an Expert: What Are the Greatest Challenges Frontline Leaders Face?
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