Shadow of the Leader


As the ex-managing director of a c.4,500 employee workforce I quickly learned that whilst metaphorically speaking it was my hands on the steering wheel that guided the organisation, I could swing my hands left and right and see no discernible change of direction!  That is unless I had engaged the line management and they were also steering in the same direction.

You see, it was my belief that the individual who inevitably has the greatest impact over the performance of the employee is their direct line manager – not the CEO/Board/MD.  With c.85% of your workforce reporting through a team leader or supervisor, it is often this junior management cohort, that has the greatest influence on your workforce behaviour and their performance.  Which dare I say in turn has a far greater impact on the financial well-being of the enterprise than the CEO does.

Understandably not all CEO’s subscribe to my belief and I have for some time been seeking irrefutable evidence rather than conceptual arguments.  We now have that evidence and can prove that the shadow of the leader is alive and kicking and that the team leader population really does have a material impact on individual and enterprise performance.  This is an economic reality and for some organisations the shadow is both toxic and costly.

Evidence at last

So let’s get statistical.  In 2016, Clever Nelly asked more than 20 million individual knowledge and competency questions of thousands of employees and a huge pool of management, the majority of whom were team leaders.  This year we will ask many more questions and the data from 2017 correlates with 2016 perfectly.  In short, we have a huge, unique and unparalleled data set to mine and analyse.

After extensive analysis of data drawn from a large bucket of clients we can prove:

  1. Employees who engage with Nelly at a rate greater than 80% have, on average, a 35% better level of workplace knowledge and competency
  2. Employees who engage less than 80% but more than zero have better knowledge and competency than those who do not engage at all
  3. Zero engagers therefore have the lowest levels of knowledge and competency

So what has this to do with Team Leaders and shadows?  Good question. We did further analysis of the same data sets drawn from a cross section of clients to see if there was a correlation between Team Leader engagement and the engagement of their direct reports.  We were stunned at just how clearly the correlation existed and how material the impact was.

Look at the chart below and you can see bars that represent the average (depersonalised) data points across our clients who give us permission to mine this data (that represents most of them and certainly north of 20 million questions).

The first vertical bar shows the average of all users irrespective of employer who were in teams that engaged at more than 80%.  The second bar shows those in teams that engaged at less than 80% but more than 60%.  The 3rd less than 60% more than 40% and the forth less than 40% but more than zero.  The blue horizontal lines shows the average engagement rate of all Team Leaders for those respective groupings.


It should be noted where an entire enterprise has near perfect (100%) engagement rates then the Team Leaders do too and the impact on performance is uniform.

There are 2 obvious conclusions:

  1. Where engagement is high knowledge and competency is high
  2. Where the Team Leader has a low level of engagement so too does the team

Conclusion 2 proves the shadow of the leader concept is alive and kicking and that the shadow can be both positive and negative.

Impact on The Business

The obvious question now is what impact does all this have on the performance of the enterprise,  i.e. does an employee with high engagement and competency perform better in their role than an employee with low engagement and competency?

The short answer is absolutely yes.  Some (but by no means all) clients work with us to help them target specifically troublesome or particularly valuable KPI’s for various cohorts within their enterprise.  This enables us to track through from engagement rate to in-role output or performance.  Depending on the role and KPI in question, the delta between high and low engagers differ in favour of the high engagers in every instance.  The actual delta between the two groups varied wildly depending on market sector and KPI, but the lowest was 6% and the highest was 89%.

In other words where we have access to the client side KPI data, and we have a high engaging Team Leader & subsequent team then we can prove that that team performs better in their job role between 6-89% – depending on industry sector, etc.

That is to say in the best case scenario we have seen so far, the employees in a given role who engaged at a rate of 80% plus had an average in-role performance improvement of 89% when compared with those peers who did the same role and engaged at less than 80%.  In the worst case scenario seen to date, the positive delta was much lower 6% but the value at stake per 1% shift in performance was materially higher.


So what does this tell us. We believe for the first time ever we can prove that the shadow of the leader is real in your business and that it can have both a positive impact and a negative impact on the financial performance of your business because, Team Leaders that engaged with Nelly above 80% had teams that had the highest levels of engagement and the individuals with engagement greater than 80% also had the highest levels of knowledge and competency.  And it was these same individuals that where the data exists we could demonstrate out-performed their less engaged peers by a material margin depending on a number of factors.

Take Action

If you are currently using Nelly in your organisation then the most productive use of senior management time would probably be ensuring that your Team Leaders engage with Nelly at, or near, 100% and that they hold their direct reports accountable for their learning engagement. This will translate to increased knowledge and competency across your entire workforce, which in turn will translate to improved efficiency and in-role performance of all employees.

If you do not currently have a purple elephant called Nelly on your payroll, then we can pretty much guarantee:

  • you do not know what your employees actually know
  • your employees have a material knowledge gap (likely > 50%) between what you need them to know and what they actually know
  • that some Team Leaders are casting a positive shadow and others a toxic one
  • that by deploying Nelly you could drive a material and continual financial improvement through your organisation.

Purple elephants it would appear are very real and can help you transform the economic and compliance performance of your business.

If you would like to learn more about this research or discuss it with one of the herd at Elephants don’t forget please drop me a line and I will personally facilitate it.