Friday, March 4, 2011

Most New Managers Are Clueless About What it Takes to be Successful

Here's an interesting new study by DDI, reprinted with permission. When it comes to new leader development, it looks like most companies are still using the old "sink or swim" model, and a lot of new leaders are drowning.
It makes me realize what a great job we did at my last company preparing new supervisors and managers well before they were promoted, through formal programs, shadowing, mentoring, and assessments.
It's not that hard to do, and it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. If you're interested, please contact me. Or DDI. (-:


New DDI study finds that managers don’t know what it takes to succeed—and weren’t ready for what the job threw at them

PITTSBURGH - Finding that first rung isn’t as easy as it seems, according to a recent study from Development Dimensions International (DDI). In fact, most new managers are in the dark about what it takes to be successful.

Finding the First Rung—A study on the challenges facing today’s frontline leader, surveyed 1,130 supervisors and first-level managers to understand how they’re overcoming the challenges of their jobs and what is holding them back from being successful.

The major findings of the study include:

• 42% of new managers don’t understand what it takes to succeed

• 89% have at least one blind spot

• Only 1 in 10 leaders were actually groomed for the job

• Half took the role an increase in compensation—only 23% actually wanted to lead others

• More than half of leaders learned through trial and error

Being Blind Sided

So why were leaders so surprised by the job? Since trial and error on the job (57%) was the number one most influential thing to achieving their leadership skills, it’s not surprising that these leaders were shocked once they were formally in the role.

And even if they’ve been in the role for a year or two, 30% of leaders still don’t understand what it takes to be successful—after six years, that number is still only 10% lower, with 1 in 5 leaders who don’t understand what it takes.

The result of this gap is leadership regret—1 out of 3 leaders surveyed regretted being promoted due to lack of preparation and or not knowing how to succeed.

Some of that distress can be attributed to how people got the job—11% of respondents said they became a leader because there was no one else for the job. These ‘accidental leaders’ regretted the promotion the most, were less likely to have wanted the promotion to begin with and more likely to question their ability to lead others.

“Management by default isn’t an effective promotion strategy,” Scott Erker, Senior Vice President of Selection Solutions for DDI said. “Companies need to do due diligence to select leaders who have the desire, motivation—and skills—to be a leader or you’ve failed the individual and the organization.”

Thrown into the Deep End—and Not Liking It

For the half of leaders who found themselves learning from trial and error (when compared to those who learned through manager support), they felt less supported, that they were getting fewer good learning experiences and were overall less satisfied with their development.

Managers learning through trial and error were 52% more likely to describe their first year on the job as stressful and twice as likely to describe it as overwhelming.

“While learning tension is good, the stress from having to navigate a complex role with little support takes a toll on morale and creates negative feeling from leaders,” Erker said.

In fact when you compare leaders who learned through manager support to those who learned from trial and error, the number of leaders who said they were less interested in being a leader more than doubled (9% manager support to 20% trial and error).

Lack of management support when transitioning to the role also took a toll on self-esteem as those learning from trial and error were a great deal more likely to rate themselves as poor or fair (18% compared to 7% with manager support) and were twice as likely to say they were unprepared to take on the job (20% compared to 9% of those with manager support).

“What can we learn from this? The manager’s role—and ultimately the company’s responsibility—in helping a new leader impacts everything from their perception of leadership to their perception of themselves,” Erker said.

All the Wrong Reasons

When asked about the top two reasons for taking the promotion, half of frontline leaders surveyed took the role because it would lead to great compensation—the number one reason for becoming a leader. What lagged behind? Broadening skills (39%), to advance their career (33%), making a greater contribution to the company (33%), and power and influence (21%). Surprisingly, wanting to lead others was almost at the bottom of the list of leader’s with only 23%.

“Leading others is one of the biggest changes for those transitioning from an individual contributor to manager,” Erker said. “But it’s a central part of the job, so the low motivation to lead should be concerning to organizations.”

What’s the downside to the financial motivation? They were more likely to become disillusioned by the job—they are 57% more likely to regret the promotion than those who wanted to make a greater contribution.

Seeing (blind) Spots

Can leaders see themselves clearly and identify their skill gaps? Even with the low confidence and regret reported, 87% of leaders rated themselves as good or excellent.

In separate data from 200 managers going through a frontline leader assessment, their self-ratings of their leadership skills were compared to their actual performance during the assessment. Nearly all of the managers (89%) rated themselves above their actual skill level on at least one leadership skill—and half rated themselves higher on at least three.

“These leaders clearly have blind spots about their own leadership skills—this is dangerous because they won’t seek development in these areas. Without insight into their development gaps, they’ll create problems for themselves and their teams throughout their leadership careers,” Erker said.

About DDI
Founded in 1970, Development Dimensions International, a global talent management expert, works with organizations worldwide to apply best practices to hiring/promotion, leadership development, performance management and succession management. With 1,000 associates in 42 offices in 26 countries, the firm advises half of the Fortune 500. For more information about DDI visit


Michael Edward Kohlman said...


A very interesting article but unfortunately I’m not at all surprised by the statistics.

Certainly my personal and observational experiences over my career would reflect much of what is said in the report. I think in my personal case I developed a love of Leadership very early in my career so that is where a lot of my development focus has been. I’d also like to believe I have some skill at it by really at the end of the day that will be for others to determine…

But the sad part is that in many environments there seems to be an almost masochistic attitude towards Leadership development, as if by going through the pain of trial-and-error this somehow makes you a better Leader in the long run. Instead it tends to create a situation where entire Teams or Enterprises are impacted as a New Leader makes all of their mistakes on those direct and indirect reports.

Unless you happen to work for a company (such as your last one) that recognizes the importance of an active Leadership Development Program, your only choice as a Leader is to break the cycle and institute one of your own. I’ve actually found that that is not as difficult to do as many people would think; it really boils down to a recognition that pro-active Leadership Development needs to be a part of the time that you put aside within your recruiting/retention/training regimen. But certainly waiting around for someone else to make it happen for you is likely a mistake (and again, the stats in this report would seem to bear this out).

Congrats on your new job BTW…

Michael Edward Kohlman

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing! Like the previous commenter, I have to say that the statistics in the report pretty much match what I have observed throughout my career. In the last study mentioned in the report, I'd be curious to see if there was a difference between women and men with respect to their leadership blind spots.

Tom McGee said...

This makes the case for individuals having a standing network of advisers the can access in real time to develop skills needed for new job responsibilities. Rob Cross and others have made this point for years, but organizations are just now realizing that the minimal training they give just can't keep up with real time demands.

Mike Moore said...

The reality is that many new managers were "promoted" because they were successful individual performers. There is very little thought given to "do they have the basic skills or characteristics" to become a manager?

Dana Searcy said...

This is an interesting article. I too am not surprised. In my experience, I see a lot of people move up the ladder because the person above them moves on and they are the best at their current they get the promotion. However, moving up means into a leadership role and most of the time they are not prepared for it. Just because you are good at a job does not mean you will be good at managing people in that job. Companies need to learn that they either need to select the right type of people to promote to leadership jobs and train them. Or select people who already have training in leadership.

Unknown said...

Great post. I have seen this many times as well of those being promoted into management roles just because they performed well as an individual. The tide is changing as I am starting to see a greater awareness of these issues when promoting people into management.

My current employer, which is a government entity, started a couple of years ago a program to train people to become managers. The program allows current and potential employees to take the program. So far it looks to be paying off.

Unknown said...

Hi Dan,

Very interesting article about the issues faced by newly promoted managers.

The problem could be part of the confused notion of leadership these days. If you have read more than one article and book about leadership you get a sense of what is happening in the field.

There are as many views about what it takes to be a good leader than there are people willing to write about the subject. Each has their own bent on the subject. And each uses popular leadership anecdotes or celebrity CEO's stories to support their points.

Is there any wonder so many have the wrong view about what it takes to succeed in a management position?

I've just written several articles about this topic on my blog at

I have also developed a survey to gauge yourself or others in a leadership role. By participating in the survey, your readers gain an understanding of the facets of great leadership and you will provide me with some interesting data.

And it might even lead to becoming a better manager.

Good luck and keep writing.

Unknown said...

In my opinion, the crappy system is the cause for such improper behavior of their new leaders/managers. I think if an organization wanted to thrive, they should have a proper system in place for recruiting, promoting, training and mentoring their leaders/managers. I also think it is impossible to create a perfect system. There could be some level of trial and error, wrong reasons, and blind spots but that should not be an organization's expectation from its new leaders/managers. A proper system in place will promote a healthy attitude even among the new leaders/managers with unhealthy attitude.

Dan McCarthy said...

Michael –
Thanks! You’re so right, in many companies, leadership development is more of a hazing. I like that you’re suggesting a manager doesn’t have to wait for “someone” to do something about it. Some of the best pre-leadership development and selection processes I’ve seen were actually designed and run by managers, not HR.

Lisa –
Gender differences were not mentioned in the study, although 57% of the respondents were female. I’ve not seen any research that suggests there would be a difference, although I have seen research that says woman are more likely to look inward when it comes to poor performance (men are more likely to blame poor performance on external factors). Thanks!

Tom –
Thanks, that’s a good example of a no-cost, simple but effective solution.

Mike, Dana –
Right, that’s always happened since the dawn of time and it’s still happening, despite what we know to be true. In sales for examples, the characteristics that make a top salesperson are often times the opposite of what it takes to be an effective sales manager.

Anthony –
That’s great, sounds like your organization is being proactive and it’s paying off. Thanks!

FSoellig –
I don’t know. On one hand, you’re right, there could be confusion. On the other hand, the basics of what it means to be a good boss have not changed too much over the last 1000 years. I think a bigger problem is selection – we’re picking people based on performance in their current role, and the motivation is often for the wrong reasons (power, more $, success, etc…).

Ilango –
Right, we could blame it on the system, but on the other hand, let’s be sure we don’t stop there. Like Michael said, a manager can create their own system for development and selection. Thanks!

Hahn said...

This is a very interesting article and actually caught me off guard that maybe the majority of managers out there are not equipped to handle challenges that come at them as manager. Moreover, there are quite a few people who end up falling into that role as opposed to wanting to be there. I would have though initially that it was only a small number but many companies do that to fill an immediate void and I would think this would effect turnover because of work dissatisfaction.

Gina @HireBetter said...

I completely agree. When someone is promoted who really isn't ready or isn't a true leader- they will struggle if they don't have guidance in some of the key areas. Some will find that they really love the new responsibility & embrace it & find out they really are a leader. Most won't.

Dan McCarthy said...

Hahn -
Yes, poorly equioped managers will have a big effect on turnover and morale, as well as productivity.

Gina -
Right, that's why it's good to put processes and programs in place that allow potential managers to get some exposure and experience to the role. It's the same reasons colleges use co-ops.

corporate investigations said...

All the statistics are shocking. I am also a new Entrepreneur . As it says in your statistics that half of leaders learned through trial and error. i am one of them and i think it is the best way to learn

Dan McCarthy said...

CI -
Yes, trial and error is how we all learn. However, a little support, training, or mentoring can at least reduce the number and severity of those errors, which tend to magnify for those in leadership roles. Thanks!

Rojae Braga said...

This is a worth reading post Dan! However, as what Michael Edward said, this is no longer surprising. Indeed, many of today’s companies no longer prepare their new supervisors and managers well before they were promoted. As long as you’ve got good resume and credentials, you’re already good to go. Companies will then assign you the highest position possible without even taking into consideration your actual capacity to lead and to succeed.