I’m sitting here pondering this entry and sipping my coffee. Seattle’s Best, with oat milk. And a pack of hot chocolate mix. Don’t judge. And I’m thinking that there are a lot of different ways to discuss front-line leadership and the benefits of developing those leaders. And I thought, well, I’m a mixed-methods kind of guy, so let’s look at it that way. Kind of. Sort of. True mixed methods is a blend of quantitative and qualitative research. For this, I’ll mix some outside research with my own experience. 

Think about the worst boss you ever had. And what I mean is the worst one you personally reported to; not someone in another department or another leadership level. Your boss. How did working for that person impact you? Did it kill your motivation, or your innovation? Did you worry more about getting yelled at than getting your work done? Did you dread going to work, and spending time looking over your shoulder while job hunting online? You likely answered “yes” to at least some of these. And I’m willing to bet that for many readers (and thank you to the six of you who are actually reading this. You’re my heroes!) that boss was at the front-line level, rather than a director, VP or C-suite resident. Certainly, in my case this was true. The worst boss I ever had was a front-line manager who couldn’t organize a one-man parade or direct traffic on a one-way street. And surprise, surprise, he had almost no development, and had his first and only leadership training six years after taking the job. So, a team of people were left in his hands for six years before he got any development. 

And when I – and maybe you – think about what that boss did wrong, I bet that the typical training received in a front-line leadership program would have helped address a good number of issues. Things like self-awareness, active listening, trust, collaboration, team building, participative management, communication…all those things we often dislike our bosses for not doing. Gaps that qualify many bosses for the “worst” boss lists.  

I think if you ask most talent management professionals, they will happily agree that it makes sense to develop new leaders and develop them early, and wherever possible provide sustained support. The problem is, it isn’t being done because too often organizations prefer to spend their leadership development dollars on more senior level leaders. In the Training Industry report “The State of the Leadership Training Market” research estimates that globally in 2019, organizations spent roughly $3.5 billion for leadership development. However, the majority of this budget went to senior level leaders…not new front-line leaders. 

More bothersome for me is that in the 2024 leadership development benchmark survey from Forbes, the question was asked “Is leadership development mandatory at your organization?” Only 54% said yes. So, in practical terms, it means that almost half of the organizations responding to this survey consider leadership development optional…not required. This baffles me. Because if most of the budget goes to the senior leaders, and only half of companies are making development mandatory, then front-line leaders are being left out. Why does it matter, you ask? Well…it’s a numbers issue. Let me walk through it. 

Below is an example of a typical corporate structure from top to bottom that demonstrates span of control, or the number of people a person manages: 

 

Now, some quick calculations. The red figure at the top with the tie is the CEO. Why he is red, why he’s a “he” and why he’s wearing a tie I don’t quite understand. But we’ll forget that for the moment and stick with calling him “Big Red”. Because why not.  

Under Big Red, there are four C-suite employees. So, Big Red has 4 people to “manage”. Each of those four has between 3 and 4 people they manage; those would be directors or leaders of functional groups. And again, each of those directors leads between two and four front-line managers. But…the front-line managers lead anywhere from three to 16 employees, averaging nine each: two to four times more than any other leader level. 

If we count all the employees represented here, we have a total of 77. Fifty-eight percent of that total are staff, and that 58% is led by five managers. FIVE. So, over half the company – the people doing the work – are led by five people.  

Now, we’ve all heard the phrase “people don’t quit their jobs, they quit bosses.” And recent studies do bear this out. In their 2022 article “How to Engage Frontline Managers” Gallup found that managers account for a whopping 70% variance in employee engagement. That means that things like culture, your team, the organization and even your work make up only 30% of the variance. And in a survey from Goodhire.com about bad bosses, 82% of employees surveyed said they would consider quitting their job due to a bad manager. 

See where I’m going with this? 

If the managers are so critically important to engagement, and low engagement means high turnover and low productivity – and it does, you can trust me on that – then an organization that doesn’t develop their front-line leaders runs a tremendous risk of having a disproportionate number of their employees in a disengaged, unhappy state.  

And really, in this example, why NOT develop those front-line leaders? There are only five of them, so it’s not a huge investment. Generally speaking, the lower level the leader is, the less expensive a leadership training program cost.   

The tuition at a well-respected leadership development firm is just under $14K for their flagship C-suite program…but the tuition for their frontline leadership program – targeted for new leaders or people identified as high-potentials – is only about $4.5K. So, you could invest $22.5 and train all five of the managers in our example and potentially have a positive impact on 58% of the company or you could spend $13,900 on just one individual – the CEO. If the net-net of the dollars is an issue, even sending just three of those front-line leaders to training for roughly $13.5K could impact the employee experience of 60% of the people who interact regularly with your customers and clients – your front-line. Or if you aren’t in the mood to play with the math, just review the reams of research that shows the huge financial benefits of investing in front-line leaders and then seriously consider reallocating budget away from the C-suite and to this critical group. 

Cost aside, who truly needs development more at this stage in their career? Leadership is learned through practice and feedback. According to the 70-20-10 model of development, 70% of what you will learn is in challenging assignments…actually doing the task. Who has likely had more of those opportunities to practice leadership? Big Red, who’s been in leadership roles for an average of 24 years according to the Harvard Business Review article The Fastest Path to the CEO Job, According to a 10-Year Study? Or the new leader who’s had minimal or possibly no formal leadership development? 

This is not to say that senior leaders don’t need, deserve, and benefit from leadership development. Of course they do. But skipping over the new leaders to spend all or majority of your professional development budget on the senior leaders might be costing your organization in ways you don’t see. And, in fact, that is what is happening. 

In their 2023 article Frontline Leaders Are Hungry for Development. Can Organizations Deliver?, Harvard Business Review offers some eye-opening comparison statistics.  

Look at three leadership capabilities that are important to an engaged staff.

In these examples, every capability is more important to the front-line leader but trained less at that level than the senior level. Developing others is relevant to 22% of senior leaders, yet 69% received that training in 2023, compared to 56% of front-line leaders for whom it’s 64% relevant. That’s a noteworthy gap in relevancy and acquisition. 

So, when you’re considering where to spend your leadership development budget, ask yourself these questions: 

  1. What benefits do we desire from improved leadership? 
  2. How can we ensure that leadership development affects the largest portion of our organization? 
  3. What do our engagement survey scores say about our employees’ experiences and relationships with their managers? 

If you do, you may very well find that the right answer is to shift your investment strategy and spend your budget on those front-line leaders. Think of the multiple ways that shift could impact your KPIs like turnover, absenteeism, productivity, and retention. You might be very pleasantly surprised by what you find!