The Frontline Leader Project

Exploring the Most Critical Segment of Leaders

For decades, DDI has studied and worked alongside frontline managers through their transformation from individual contributor to leader. In our work, we’ve seen a common theme of anxiety—felt both by frontline leaders and the people around them. This lack of confidence is critical because frontline leaders are responsible for more than 80 percent of an organization’s workforce and are directly responsible for executing an organization's strategy.

Our ongoing Frontline Leader Project explores research behind the anxiety of frontline leaders, including their path to leadership, the challenges they face, and the expectations on them by other people. We encourage you to take part in sharing your experience by taking our survey, whether you are a frontline manager, an individual contributor, or higher-level leader.

 

The Road to Becoming a Manager

In this portion of our research, we analyzed survey and assessment data from more than 23,000 frontline leaders* to examine the path to leadership. We aimed to answer key questions such as who gets the opportunity to lead, when they get the opportunity, and how their background contributes to their success and struggles. This understanding of what frontline leaders bring to the job will fuel our future research behind their experience and anxiety around leadership.

*Research is based on data from more than 9,700 frontline leaders surveyed for the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, as well as DDI's assessment data from more than 13,700 frontline leaders.

Become a Manager at Age 36

The average age that people first become a manager is 36. While the majority of first-time leaders are between the ages of 25 and 38, people may be stepping into their first leadership job as young as 16 or as late in their careers as 69. The varying ages people take on their first leadership role also has implications for their training and development. A “one-size-fits-all approach” likely won’t fit the needs of both extremes—a young high-potential leader still getting comfortable in their first job has a very different learning trajectory than someone just promoted into their first leader role after having spent 30 or 40 years as an individual contributor.

“I was a bit worried [about becoming a leader]. I didn’t like change. I was quite set in my current job. I was coming into work, doing my time, and going home. I liked that."—Operations manager, courier industry

Become a Manager at Age 36

To Wait or Not to Wait?

The average organizational tenure of someone taking on their first frontline leader position is six years. However, as low unemployment rates persist and organizations increasingly rely on workers with specialized skill sets, top performers may not be patient, and feel they need to find a new employer to land their desired promotion. Therefore, companies that fail to promote leaders-to-be in a timely manner—or at least make it clear that they are on a path to leadership—may find themselves losing out on critical talent. The good news is that the first step into leadership goes a long way toward retaining talented people: Once in a frontline manager role, 64 percent are willing to stay at an organization in order to progress to the next level of leadership.

“I had it in the back of my mind a few years ago that I wanted to progress, so when the opportunity came up at a new company, I jumped on it!”—Product design manager, software & technology industry

To Wait
...or Not to Wait?
To Wait or Not to Wait?

It’s “Sink or Swim” in the First Four Years

Despite the difficulty of transitioning to a leadership role, new managers often have little support through the transition. Many leaders receive no training, and those that do receive training often have to wait several years for it. On average, people are 40 years old when they first go through leadership development courses—four years after the average age when people first become leaders. What does this lack of timely training mean for the frontline leader? They may be making mistakes early in their leadership careers that may damage relationships with their direct reports or key partners, which could have long-term consequences.

“I was pretty overwhelmed to start with. My boss was pretty hands-off as far as actual training. I felt like he sort of shoved me in the pool to see if I could swim. The first couple of months were a little dicey for me and I was not sure I did the right thing by taking the job.”—Distributions manager, nonprofit organization

It’s Sink or Swim in the First Four Years
It’s Sink or Swim in the First Four Years

Gender Gaps Start Early

Organizations with gender-diverse leadership see significant business benefits, yet women currently comprise less than one-third of all leadership roles, with the majority of those roles at the frontline. And when they do get the chance to lead, they often lead smaller teams. Our data shows women frontline leaders have a median of five direct reports, compared to seven for male frontline leaders.

These gender gaps form early, even before a woman steps into her first frontline manager role. Our data on leader candidates shows women are progressively losing the chance to ascend. Forty percent of all individual contributor candidates seeking first-time leader jobs are female, dropping to only 12 percent of C-suite candidates.

“I thought the whole ‘do business over golf thing’ was a cliché. It wasn’t. And by the second time I was passed over for a promotion, I got the message. I can’t fit in here.”—Female banker

Gender Gaps Start Early

Performance Doesn’t Explain the Gender Gap

One of the reasons often cited for the lack of women in leadership is that they may be naturally less qualified leaders. However, when comparing the leadership skills of women and men frontline leaders, women perform equally as well as men on the “hard skills”—planning, judgment, and decision making—and outperform men in both leadership and interaction “soft skills,” excelling in the areas of coaching others, facilitating change, and building trusting relationships. The evidence suggests that performance is not explaining the gap in access to leadership opportunities between men and women.

“I couldn’t figure out why he [male colleague with the same role] got to go to at least one conference every year. I was lucky to go to one every other year, even though I consistently get glowing performance reviews and my team’s engagement scores are off the charts.”—Director, healthcare organization

Performance Doesn’t Explain the Gender Gap

MBAs Don’t Create Better Leaders

Many people get MBAs for the sole purpose of landing higher-level leadership jobs, and these degrees don’t come cheap. In the U.S., tuition averages around $100,000. But does someone with an MBA outperform somebody without an MBA in terms of leadership capability? Frontline managers with an MBA showed only a minor increase in leadership behavior over those with bachelor’s degrees in business who did not go on to achieve an MBA. Organizations may be placing too much emphasis on hiring only candidates with MBAs for leadership roles, wrongly assuming the people they are hiring already have the skills to do the job, just because they have an MBA. In addition, they may be failing to provide enough leadership training for these groups, assuming that their MBA education had already covered it.

“I felt confident going into my first supervisory role. I even have an MBA, but I quickly found that it didn’t prepare me to lead a team. I got feedback that made me question my interactions…some of my communication skills were definitely lacking.”—Tool design manager, manufacturing

MBAs
MBAs
MBAs Don’t Create Better Leaders

More Than Half of Leaders Are Left Out

If leaders want more training, they better hope they get labeled as a “high-potential.” Forty-five percent of frontline leaders are formally identified as being part of their organization’s high-potential pool, which means they get twice as much funding and 25 percent more development hours each year. But what happens to the leaders left out of the pool? Leaders told they have low leadership potential show lower overall leadership ambition and a decrease in performance.

“Initial on-the-job training, let alone any long-term career development or coaching, was pretty much nonexistent for me.” —Manager, content development [not part of her company’s “high-potential” pool]

More Than Half of Leaders Are Left Out

Well-Rounded Leaders Study Humanities

While science and technology degrees are often touted as offering better career options than degrees in the humanities, assessments show that people in STEM fields often struggle more to gain the key leadership skills they need to succeed at higher levels in the organization. Assessment results of leaders with different educational backgrounds showed deep disparities in critical leadership skills.

Leaders with humanities backgrounds showed the strongest performance in leadership skills focused on people and interactions. Conversely, our research shows leaders with degrees in business or the hard sciences (Math, Natural Sciences, Engineering) exhibited stronger performance in common business-related skills like judgment, problem analysis, and planning and organizing, but struggled with interaction-based skills.

“My background is in chemical engineering. How to talk to people, manage a team, motivate them…this is the stuff they don’t teach you in school. To say I felt ill-prepared to be a manager would be an understatement.”–Manager of R&D, chemical company

Well-Rounded Leaders Study Humanities
Well-Rounded Leaders Study Humanities

We encourage you to take part in sharing your experience by taking our survey, whether you are a frontline manager, an individual contributor, or higher-level leader. As a thank you for your time, you will be entered to win a $100 Amazon gift card. 1 in 40 people will win!

Talk to an Expert: Frontline Leader Project
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