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Challenges Leaders are Facing

The Frontline Leader Project

These findings are from our ongoing Frontline Leader Project, exploring research behind the anxiety of frontline leaders, including their path to leadership, the challenges they face, and the expectations placed on them by other people.

We’ve learned that the road to becoming a manager can be a journey filled with challenges, but what are these managers grappling with while on the job? In this portion of our research, we analyzed survey and assessment data from more than 23,000 frontline leaders* to understand the challenges they face in their roles—from where they are struggling most to where they are thriving. A better grasp on the hardships of these leaders will lead us closer to understanding the root of the anxiety both within and surrounding their roles.

*Research is based on data from 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 of these leaders.

Struggling to See Purpose

Our research shows purpose-driven companies outperform the market by 42 percent financially, and many corporate HR departments work tirelessly to create and perfect mission statements to drive purpose and inspire their leaders. Of the HR respondents we surveyed, 90 percent said their companies had mission statements.

Yet, only 28 percent of first-level leaders say their companies have a mission statement. On top of this, one third of the people we surveyed don’t feel that the leaders in their organizations behave in a way that exemplifies the stated purpose of the organization. Somewhere along the way, purpose is getting lost in translation. While HR is creating documentation around organizational purpose, their messaging isn’t getting to the front line.

“When I was asked if my company had a mission and vision statement, I drew a blank.”—Supervisor, oil and gas

Struggling to See Purpose

No Room to Fail

Business leaders often talk about the importance of “failing forward,” which means learning from failure to become even better. While this concept is embraced in theory to drive innovation, 14 percent of the first level managers we surveyed feel failure is not at all embraced in their organization in pursuit of innovation or different ideas, and only seven percent believe failure is embraced to a very great extent.

Managers taught to be risk-averse could be missing out on new ideas and the shared learning that comes from making mistakes. Not to mention, as the folks who lead the majority of an organization’s workforce, they could be engraining the idea that failure is unacceptable in the minds of their teams, who then allow their pursuit of perfection to squash innovation—a requirement for organizational success.

“In my first eight months of being a manager, I got some of my best learning out of trial and error. This was from both my own failure in leading and from witnessing the failure of others.”
—Customer service manager, insurance

No Room to Fail

Digital Skills a Must

When it comes to the most critical skills managers need in the next three years, HR rated skills surrounding intellectual and cultural curiosity, 360 degree thinking, digital literacy, leading with digitalization, and leading virtual teams as most important. The problem is all of these skills currently have a low development focus at organizations, showing that managers could be falling behind on developing the skills they’ll need most to be successful in the future.

Identifying and developing talent is also a skill rated by HR as being critical for the future, and our research reveals leaders are only moderately effective in this area. While it’s certainly positive that this is a current heavy focus area for frontline manager development, this is also an incredibly challenging skill to master, making it unlikely that they will be fully prepared to select the right talent for their teams in the next three years. Managers could be headed into the future already behind on the skills they’ll need the most to thrive.

“When I first got into management, the one thing I didn’t anticipate was how time-intensive it would be to interview and hire. I wasn’t given any training on how to interview and trying to hire people and complete all my other work at the same time was a nightmare.”—Team lead, software

Digital Skills a Must

Unprepared to Lead a Digital Workforce

Leaders reported relative confidence in skills related to their personal abilities—skills they have high control over—such as determination, empathy, adaptability, connectivity, and alignment, and reported less confidence in skills that depend on other people, such as providing inspiration, hyper-collaboration, driving execution, and developing future talent.

Skills related to the digital workforce have been rated by HR as among the most critical skills for the future, but leaders reported the least confidence, and even fear, in competencies surrounding digital literacy, leading with digitization, and leading virtual teams. This is problematic for management because skills surrounding the digital workforce are currently a low development focus for them, indicating a skill gap that is unlikely to close anytime soon—one that will likely only grow larger. What’s more, leaders lacking confidence in even one realm of their skillset can affect their daily performance, as well as their ability to reach their full potential.

“The technology stuff, that is what’s most difficult for me. I can’t keep up with all the changes and I never feel prepared to teach what I’ve learned back to my team.”—Accounting manager, financial institution

Unprepared to Lead a Digital Workforce

Classroom is Still King—Even for Millennials

Even more than they want additional coaching from their managers and external mentors, people want formal learning to help them develop their leadership skills. Of the first-level leaders we surveyed, 59 percent said they want more formal workshops, training courses, and seminars than they are currently getting.

Surprisingly, this finding extended to Millennial leaders, 65 percent of whom said they wanted more formal learning. While it’s often assumed that the “digital generation” wants everything delivered via technology, it’s also worthwhile to consider that they are the most educated generation in history and are highly used to a classroom setting. Our data on the learning preferences of Millennials concurs, revealing that what this subset of leaders is used to in terms of formal learning is also how they prefer to be developed.

“Of the leadership training I’ve participated in so far, I much prefer the training that’s in an actual classroom. Call me old school, but this is how I learn the best.”—Marketing manager, telecommunications

Classroom is Still King—Even for Millennials

 

Craving Coaching

In our research of frontline leaders, most indicated they are not receiving the type of learning and development they need to be more effective leaders in their organization. Nearly half of the people we surveyed said they wanted more coaching from their current manager than they are currently getting, and 57 percent said they wanted more external coaching than they are currently getting. And when it comes to their overall development needs—the activities that improve the skills, abilities, and confidence of leaders—nearly half of the first-level managers we surveyed (49 percent) said they are not getting the development support they need from their leaders.

It’s clear that frontline leaders crave more coaching, and the external coaching they want most is often not an option at their organization. According to our research, only 42 percent of companies use external coaching for their employees and typically only for senior leaders.

“My leader only talked about how current work was progressing and upcoming assignments, rarely mentioning my management skills and leadership, let alone coaching.”—IT manager, manufacturing and research industry

MBAs Don’t Create Better Leaders

Missing a Mentor

Most people step into frontline roles without much guidance on what to do or how to grow as leaders, and few are getting the mentorship they need. In fact, 60 percent of the people we surveyed reported that they’ve never had a mentor. However, among organizations where leaders rated the overall quality of leadership in the organization as excellent, 53 percent said they’ve had some form of mentorship.

With mentorship clearly connected to better quality managers, organizations are missing out when they don't have a mentoring program in place. Furthermore, they are not helping to connect more senior leaders who can pass along their knowledge and experiences to their future successors. The data shows that only 22 percent of frontline leaders feel very prepared to capture organizational knowledge before it’s lost, which is an urgent need as a rapidly growing number of Baby Boomers retire.

“My manager told me his door was always open and if I was unsure about anything, to pick up the phone. He always told me I could come talk about my career at any time, but it was never a formal thing.”—Shift manager, consumer products

Missing a Mentor

Working in a Vacuum

Only 48 percent of first-level leaders said that individuals in their organizations work across organizational boundaries to accomplish goals and solve challenges. Similarly, many reported that they feel their collaboration skills aren’t very strong, with only 54 percent feeling confident that they take action based on input from multiple sources or perspectives.

This is concerning considering organizations that have strong collective leadership make better-informed decisions and are more confident in responding to the competitive environment and acting on customer needs, not to mention having a five times higher likelihood of a strong leader bench and twice the rate of “definitely engaged” leaders. Organizations should focus on creating leadership teams that cut across boundaries and give their managers of all levels the skills that enable them to work collectively. Without this focus on collaboration, organizations risk that the majority of their leaders will be lacking the commitment and engagement necessary to drive their teams towards common goals.

“I moved from one functional area in the organization to a completely new one when I became a manager. I was surprised to see that everyone was kind of ‘working in a silo’ over here, where I was used to more discussion and collaboration.”
—Production manager, manufacturing

Working in a Vacuum

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