Too many Australian organisations underinvest in leadership development, especially at the frontline.

One of the greatest travesties that occur in organisations is also unfortunately one of the most common. People are promoted based on technical ability and tenure, thereby given supervisory and leadership responsibilities, without being trained and provided with a skill set to manage people.

We’ve all seen it. John is a brilliant young salesman who doesn’t just meet, but smashes, his targets quarter on quarter. He is promoted to head of the sales team. Now he is responsible for budgets, managing older staff, and explaining to the CEO why overall sales target aren’t being met. How does he do all that stuff? Ben might be an excellent soldier, sniper qualified, with a great tactical mind for command. But when he is given a team of 10 men to lead and a fight breaks out in barracks, how does he effectively manage the conflict in a way that maintains the trust and respect of his men? Basic training didn’t mention that.

Recently I was talking with the general manager of an engineering company. He was struggling with a senior engineer who had been promoted. Part of his new role was not only supervising junior engineers, but engaging directly with and managing clients. Junior engineers were disgruntled about a lack of communication and development, while clients were unhappy about mistakes being made and the un-personable nature of this individual. When asked if he had been given any training to manage the people and relationships involved, the general manager simply shook his head.

The crazy thing is, we wouldn’t allow an engineer to build a bridge without the appropriate training and qualifications. Why do we not only allow, but expect, people to manage others without the appropriate training to do so?

Misplaced. Data shows that on average, it is 10 years after first being given supervision responsibilities that managers get any sort of leadership training and development. That is a decade of floundering, trying to find their own way and making it up as they go along. A decade of developing bad habits and making unnecessary mistakes that cost organisations. A decade of not reaching their own potential, but more importantly in the long term, not developing the potential of their staff – who are the future business leaders of this nation and its organisations.

In 2016 the University of Melbourne released the Study of Australian Leadership (SAL). This is the first major study of workplace leadership in Australia since the Karpin Report released in 1995. While the report suggests that good Australian leaders who oversee high performing organisations are as good as the best leaders anywhere else in the world, it also highlights some “troubling deficiencies” across the Australian business landscape.

One of the more frightening conclusions of the report is that: “Australian leaders, on the whole, have not mastered the fundamentals of management.” While it is hard to capture an accurate figure on how much Australian organisations spend on leadership development, the report data suggests that it is significantly less that international standards throughout Asia, Europe and the United States. How is the Australian economy supposed to compete and thrive in today’s global market if it’s businesses and organisations are not achieving their potential through effectively managing and developing their most valuable asset/resource – their people?

Underfunded. Especially when what investment is made is directed in the wrong area. One study (Mercer, 2013) suggests that for every $10 spent on developing senior leaders, only $1 is spent on Frontline leaders. Now I believe that every leader at every level should be receiving and will benefit from leadership development. However I would argue that focus of the expenditure should be flipped.

By investing in the development of frontline leaders early in their career means that they begin applying good fundamentals of management right from day one. Not only associated with positive organisational outcomes (employee satisfaction, organisational commitment and increased performance metrics etc.), this also means that by the time these individuals become senior leaders, they will have been on a 15 year leadership development journey. Therefore any development they receive at the senior level will be building on an established foundation of good leadership experience, rather than learning basic principles (or worse advanced leadership techniques without understanding the basics). Thus investment in frontline leadership is more likely to produce a far greater ROI across long-term leadership development.

If Australian organisations of all sizes are to remain competitive in an increasingly global economy, they need to ensure their people are fulfilling their potential and operating at peak performance, individually and collectively. This can only be facilitated by good leadership and applied best-practice management. That means a greater level of leadership development must be invested at all levels, but especially for our frontline leaders.

If you are a business leader who hasn’t had leadership training, or you have frontline leaders who are part of your team, why not consider what you can do to develop yourself and your people. Whether engaging a business coach for personal development, or a leadership consultant to provide training for your team, don’t delay – take action and give yourself and your organisation the best chance to achieve success to fulfil your potential.

Mercer (2013) Asia Pacific Leadership Development Practices Study Report. Retrieved from:  

Grahan, P., et al. (2016) Leadership at Work: Do Australian leaders have what it takes? Melbourne: Centre for Workplace Leadership, University of Melbourne. Available at