Why 80 percent of front-line leaders fail (and how to break the cycle)

"A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." Lao Tzu

Published: Apr 30, 2014 06:48:41 AM IST
Updated: Apr 14, 2014 02:57:01 PM IST

You know the scenario. After a year of performing exceptionally, Emily, a mid-20s analyst, moves to a manager role supervising three former peers. Within weeks, Emily’s manager observes that she stays late every night, completing work that should be done by her team. After promising to delegate, Emily regresses. Her team members have disengaged, and Emily shows signs of burnout. All are considering leaving the company.

If you work in a professional environment, then chances are you have witnessed a front-line leader like Emily fail. You have worked for an overwhelmed front-line leader, been one yourself, and hired or promoted one. You have watched as he struggled to balance the work he felt responsible to complete, unable to delegate effectively and unable to manage the anxiety growing within himself and his team.

In its study, “How Companies Manage the Front Line Today,” McKinsey found that 80 percent of front-line leaders report dissatisfaction with their job performance, and 70 percent of senior managers agreed.

These failures create many unintended and expensive consequences. Employees cite their manager as a primary reason for leaving an organization. The cost for organizations is staggeringly high. Research suggests it costs roughly 50 percent of an employee’s salary to find and train a replacement. For a company with 10,000 workers, the estimated cost to replace entry-level workers is $11.5 million annually. This figure does not take into account the more common outcome: employees stay but produce less, with lower quality.mg_75064_employee_turnover_280x210.jpg

Given that front-line leaders manage a majority of the workforce, companies have a compelling business case for providing them with the tools they need to be successful.

So, what can senior managers and companies do to help front-line leaders? The answer starts with understanding what motivates front-line leaders. Throughout their early careers, they are rewarded for completing tasks and solving problems. Presented with a challenge, they work to overcome it and earn praise and satisfaction for a job well done.

Over time, a three-part cycle [see figure] becomes a conditioned pattern. New managers begin to anticipate a reward as soon as they encounter a challenge. Those with the strongest desire are most likely to be promoted to leadership roles.

However, when an individual contributor becomes a front-line leader, the cycle is disrupted. Literally overnight, with a promotion to front-line leadership, the new manager is expected to forego two steps in the cycle: the action and the reward. Not surprisingly, and in too many cases, she adapts poorly to the new behavior required (e.g., delegating) and reverts to the old habits of working as an individual contributor.

Successful companies recognize that habits eat intentions for breakfast. Despite intending to delegate to their team members, habitual patterns take over and front-line leaders find themselves doing the work. They justify stepping into situations involving high stakes (whether or not the situation warrants it) or erroneously believe that the best way to teach others is to have them observe. Thus begins their struggle to accomplish more work than can be completed by one person, and their team members quickly become alienated.

Thankfully, this outcome can be avoided. If guided correctly, new managers can progress smoothly from individual contributor to front-line leader and beyond. This occurs when front-line leaders learn to acknowledge the cycle and modify their behavior rather than fight it. Instead of seeking praise as a reward, front-line leaders learn to take pleasure in the successes of their team members. Their own managers can help as well. When senior managers make clear to front-line leaders why they must delegate, reward them for doing so, and hold them accountable when they don’t, they retain the most important part of the cycle—the reward—and make the new behavior easier to achieve and sustain.

Once front-line leaders equate the success of their direct reports with their own success, other behaviors, such as coaching, mentoring, and giving feedback, become easier to put into practice. The new way of behaving lowers the risk of employee turnover and creates more engaged, higher performing teams. A virtuous cycle has replaced a doomed one.

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[This article has been reproduced with permission from Knowledge Network, the online thought leadership platform for Thunderbird School of Global Management https://thunderbird.asu.edu/knowledge-network/]

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