Is Most Leadership Development Too Little, Too Late?

Based on a comprehensive survey of frontline teams and managers, the Learning and Development Roundtable, a membership program of the CEB found that “more than 50% of front-line managers would rather not manage people and that ‘informal managers’ (rather than formally-designated managers) actually do most of the day-to-day management of frontline teams.” The study also found that 60% of frontline managers underperform during their first two years in a leadership position.

No one should be surprised by these numbers, nor by the evidence that they correlate directly to lower engagement and inconsistent performance that translates into lower productivity and increased costs.

Many leaders cannot produce an engaged and contributing workforce. The CEB survey suggests that’s because they don’t want to. Most front-line managers are subject-matter experts (SMEs) promoted to into a management role. Subject matter expertise does not always translate into leadership success. As I stated in “Ultra Leadership,” “Many times, because those SMEs have not made a conscious decision to lead, they do not cultivate a leadership mindset and skill set. And, because in most instances leaders retain individual contributor accountabilities in addition to team leadership, they focus on their strengths to stay in their comfort zones. They do not go to the edge of their competence as leaders and push beyond it. They are in default mode, which means continuing to do what they have already been doing. They end up doing much of the work that should be handled by their direct reports because that is also in their comfort zone.” And, according to the CEB survey, they leave a large percentage of their more people-related responsibilities to others to handle for them.

How do we know with certainty that a person has the drive to lead? If we do not ask this question, if we just promote a top individual contributor into a leadership role and hope he figures out how to lead, we’re setting that person up for failure and pretty much ensuring weak and ordinary leadership.

Unprepared leaders lack the skill and drive to step into the challenge of engaging, supporting, and developing a team of people. Unprepared leaders develop work-arounds. The reason they do so is to avoid the hard work of leading people. Heisman winner and Tennessee Titans quarter-back Marcus Mariota says, “Sometimes as a leader, you have to…hold people accountable and call them out on things, and that’s not an easy thing to do by any stretch.” We certainly don’t prepare leaders to do this. So they don’t. They develop work-arounds. Work-arounds aid the person who has not yet developed the skills to lead properly.

If and when some organizations intervene with leadership training, it is in many cases too little too late. Bad habits developed on the fly and over time take hold and are hard to overcome.

(Our Ultra Leadership 360 measures an individual’s Drive to Lead as well as their competency Encouraging Engagement and Coaching for Performance. Our Ultra Leadership Workout develops the skills and provides the tools managers need to create alignment, build bench strength, and coordinate action.)

We owe it to those we want to promote into a management position to help them assess their desire and readiness for such a role. We also owe them training, development, and coaching opportunities within their first two years as people managers. Such an investment of time, energy, and resources would raise their performance and simultaneously increase engagement and productivity. That’s good for them, good for their teams, and good for the organization.

Categories: Leadership.