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The Secret Life of Bosses

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.

In this portion of our research, we analyzed recent survey data from over 1,000 leaders, executives, and individual contributors to gather authentic feelings and experiences related to the challenges of being a frontline manager. 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.

Surprise, You Got a Promotion!

Our research points to a concerning issue: the majority of those who become managers weren’t planning on it, an indicator their readiness could be lacking. A full 70 percent of frontline leaders weren’t expecting their first step into leadership. Among them, 20 percent of leaders were surprised but excited to be given a promotion, and 17 percent accepted the role because it seemed like the next natural step in their career. Because most leaders didn’t necessarily intend to make the leap to leadership when the opportunity came along, it’s critical organizations provide them with the support and early training they need to be successful.

Another reason managers accept their first leadership role is for an increase in pay. About one in five leaders (19 percent) say their move to leadership was primarily motivated by money. While these leaders said they enjoyed their promotion and the extra pay, they also reported they aren’t motivated to lead others and weren’t as prepared as they would have liked going into their first leadership job. Overall, the leaders who aren’t motivated to lead said their transition was stressful and they continue to feel the most stress at work trying to find time to advance their skills. Organizations should be wary of selecting individuals without the motivation to lead because they have more stress surrounding their roles, which could trigger an eventual departure.

“Leadership wasn’t something I chased. It just sort of happened automatically for me.”—Tool design manager, manufacturing

Surprise, You Got a Promotion!

Skittish About the C-suite

Few managers feel their future could include a seat in the C-suite, an alarming fact to organizations that need lower-level managers with potential for higher-level roles to build a strong leadership bench.

Of the managers we surveyed, 76 percent indicated a desire to advance to higher leadership roles over the course of their careers. Thirty four percent want to move one step beyond their current roles into operational leadership, by becoming a mid-level manager, director, or department leader. Additionally, 31 percent want to move up two positions of power into strategic leadership. But when it comes to having C-suite aspirations, only 1 in 10 frontline leaders (11 percent) see themselves moving into a C-level role. To combat this lack of interest in the highest levels of leadership, organizations should be proactive about assessing for higher-level leader potential within lower ranks of leaders, and when potential is uncovered, make it a priority to develop those leaders early.

“I’d like to keep climbing in terms of leadership roles, maybe even becoming a director someday, but I have no interest in steering the whole ship.”—Manager of R&D, chemical company

Skittish About the C-Suite

Natural for Few, Stressful for Many

Upon looking back at their first step into leadership, leaders commonly say the transition wasn’t easy. Our findings reinforce this, with the majority of managers we surveyed (84 percent) revealing they were stressed by taking their first leadership job. Only 16 percent said the move to leadership felt natural.

When it comes to being prepared for their new roles, only 10 percent said they felt well-prepared, while the remaining 90 percent said they felt unprepared to some extent. Three-quarters of leaders who felt unprepared indicated they were significantly stressed by the transition. This lack of preparation undoubtedly leads itself to a less than ideal chance of long-term success as most leaders are left “faking it until they make it.” It’s no wonder 60 percent of new managers fail within their first 24 months. The bottom line is managers are looking for more support during their transition to leadership.

“Because I was so stressed upon taking my first manager position, I have become much more open to sharing my past experience...including talking about my failures with others who have just been promoted. This coaching makes a difference. Even experienced people who are becoming manager for the first time will encounter unfamiliar challenges.”—Sales Manager

Digital Skills a Must

What’s Keeping Leaders Up at Night?

When it comes to what stresses leaders out the most, three sources stand out. Frontline managers emphasized discomfort with navigating organizational politics, having time to do everything that needs to be done, and finding time to advance their skills as their top three stressors.

Research from the 2019 LinkedIn Learning Report also sources time as the number one barrier that holds people back from learning. Leaders are among the most time-strapped and are at risk of spending their days juggling urgent matters nonstop, leaving little time for their own development. The report goes on to say that employees who spend over five hours per week learning are more likely to know where they want to go in their careers, find greater purpose, and feel less stressed. Planned development is critical for leaders to continue to advance, and organizations that build in formal time for growth and skill building are giving their leaders what they need to be more prepared for their transitions.

“I was surprised to have spent nearly the entirety of the first six months in my new role getting comfortable with a whole new set of office politics.”—Sales Director, financial organization

What’s Keeping Leaders Up at Night?

Love It or Regret It

It’s clear the stress of taking on a new role makes it harder for leaders to love their job. Even the 40 percent of leaders who say they love their role reported areas where they struggle, indicating that dealing with complexity and ambiguity in their roles is a hardship, as well as working with senior leaders. This data point reinforces that even organizations with high levels of satisfaction among its leaders should still take time to understand where development may be lacking.

On the flip side, about one in five leaders we surveyed (18 percent) said they regret taking their role in the first place. Another two in five leaders (41 percent) admitted they have had a few moments of doubt, but they mostly enjoy leadership. These leaders are a prime audience for organizations to engage and to support their development. They’re highly motivated to lead, but if the company can’t help them navigate their challenges successfully, they might leave to pursue another opportunity elsewhere.

“I love being a leader. Especially when everything’s clicking: everyone is contributing and everyone’s having wins. It feels like an exponential curve and you get that slingshot effect where you build momentum and peoples’ success kind of builds off each other and that’s fun. But when everything’s not clicking, and I’m dealing with challenges beyond my control, it’s just plain hard.”—Marketing director, consumer products

Love It or Regret It


Millennials Lead Work/Home Separation

Overwhelmingly, leaders say the skills they learned as a leader also improve the quality of their personal relationships. Although they admit they have less time and energy to pursue personal interests, they are proud to tell friends and family about their work.

There are generational differences, however, in how this translates to their work-life balance. Of the Gen X leaders we surveyed, 23 percent reported that no matter what they’re doing, they feel like they must check their email or be connected to work, compared to only 13 percent of Millennial leaders. This contradicts a common image of Millennials—a generation that grew up constantly connected to the digital world. Of the generations, Millennials were most likely to indicate they feel more stressed at home and that they keep their personal and work life completely separate. The digital separation could be a countermeasure to mitigate stress and freeing time for a better balance, that as leaders they will model for their teams.

“The leadership skills I’ve learned at work—how to use esteem and empathy in my interactions—have greatly benefited the conversations I have with family and friends in my personal life.”—Administrative professional

Millennials Lead Work/Home Separation

What Drives Leaders?

While stress is a common theme for leaders, 60 percent still feel positively about their roles.

Across leader level, gender, and generation, the top three feelings leaders selected to describe their own leadership experience were: excitement, pride, and confidence. Leaders report being driven by their connections with others and helping their teams and colleagues across the organization succeed. They also feel rewarded by having more influence over what happens in their organization.

“I feel motivated by giving my team the motivation they need to succeed here. Whether it’s the motivation to get through challenges with a new system or influencing them to participate in things that will help them grow, I’m encouraged by seeing them do well.”—Healthcare Department Head

MWhat Drives Leaders?

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