Think about your organization in the next five to 10 years. What does your leadership pipeline look like? Do you even have one? Who will be the people leading your organization to future success?
Many organizations recognize the importance of leadership development, but too often current leaders assume their best and brightest will somehow rise to the top or figure out how to get there on their own. This isn’t usually the case. Top-talent development — the critical path to your organization’s future success — is too important to leave to chance. You need a proactive plan.
The following recommendations can help your organization accelerate the development of future leaders.
1. Create the vision: What does a next-generation leader in your organization look like?
Building a model that clearly outlines key success factors needed at the next level is a critical first step. It is important that this profile includes elements such as the organization's strategy, current and future challenges, culture, and values. Prioritizing key leadership characteristics that support these elements then serves as a roadmap or blueprint for next generation leaders and senior executives to follow.
For some organizations, this means creating a competency model, a list of key characteristics required to succeed, as one moves higher in the organization. Developing a behavioral continuum — a description of specific behaviors for each level in the organization — to support current and new competency models can assist in providing a roadmap for top talent. Creating a common language within an organization around these themes helps launch important discussions about preparing your next generation of leaders for success.
Remember there's a person behind the ratings. Frame developmental conversations by focusing on an individual's professional development, career progression, and success.
2. Get real: How do you create meaningful, two-way dialogue focused on future development?
Future leaders and supervisors or mentors should complete independent ratings on the key success factors, leadership characteristics, and/or competencies the organization needs. Ratings should be followed by a two-way conversation about the rationale behind them. To position these conversations in a positive, constructive, effective way:
- Remember there's a person behind the ratings. Frame the conversations by focusing on that individual's professional development, career progression, and success. Let them know they've been identified as someone the organization highly values to increase their engagement in the process.
- Focus the conversation on preparedness, collaborative problem-solving, and future development activities rather than past performance. A three-point scale — "ready now," "short-term development needed," and "long-term development needed" — can help guide discussions.
- Separate development conversations from performance reviews. One talented future leader candidly admitted, “You can talk about development all you want, but during my annual performance review, in the back of my mind, it’s about the money!”
3. Leverage strengths: Which strengths will be most helpful in becoming a successful, next generation leader?
It's important to leverage the strengths that further both individual and organizational success. Identify and prioritize individuals' key strengths that most directly prepare them for success at the next level in your organization. Focus on no more than three "signature strengths" — areas where your top-talent individuals can readily apply critical skills, abilities, or competencies to advance their careers and the organization. The following skills take on greater and greater importance as future leaders move up in the organization: the ability to implement strategy, influence others, build consensus, manage conflict, coach and develop staff, explore alternative perspectives with an open mind, improvise, and an effective executive presence.
Focusing specifically on strengths that enable success at the next level of advancement is especially important. Many traits and skills enable individual, but not necessarily organizational success. But executive roles require leadership of others in addition to one's own efforts in order to further the organization's goals.
4. Prioritize: What does it take to get to the next level?
Rather than identifying professional development areas or “weaknesses”, we suggest framing discussions around “What does it take to get to the next level?” This approach creates a collaborative, problem-solving mindset and generates forward-looking dialogue with the next-generation leader. As one future leader stated, “This kind of approach puts my supervisor and me on the same side of the table, working together toward a shared goal and shared focus on my career and professional development – as well as the role I might play in furthering the organization as a whole.”
Also, keep the focus on the “next level” to connect the key skills the organization needs in its future leaders with the action plan to get there. Frame constructive feedback in a supportive and positive tone, and avoid laundry lists of improvement areas that fail to prioritize the most important issues to address.
5. Stretch: What assignments and activities make a difference?
Stretch assignments help future leaders build skills, can increase engagement, and can help staff feel they're making an important contribution to the organization. Assignments might include job rotations, action-learning assignments, serving on cross-functional committees or task forces, or creating emerging leader cross-functional project teams. Such cohort groups help individuals broaden their knowledge base, build relationships with peer emerging leaders, and accelerate their ability to take on leadership roles within their department or cross-functional areas.
When creating stretch assignments, supervisors should spend time discussing the desired skills and outcomes. This provides a game plan by which to evaluate progress and actively eliminates “magical thinking” by either party that targeted skills will materialize out of the ether.
At the outset, discuss how progress and success will be measured at the end of the assignment. Then, set aside time to debrief key learnings and how to apply lessons learned. Provide suggestions for moving forward, including ongoing progress monitoring and tracking. Help the future leader answer the question, “How will I know if I'm successfully developing the right skills?”
Stretch assignments are a key way supervisors and mentors can support growth and accelerate development.
6. Coach & sponsor: What can the supervisor/mentor do to support growth?
Stretch assignments are a key way supervisors and mentors can support growth and accelerate development. Involvement shows individuals that their supervisor is invested in their future growth and development.
In addition, supervisors can increase future leaders' visibility beyond functional responsibilities. Make introductions, advocate for additional stretch assignments, and provide context for how an individuals' development plan fits with career progression.
Providing timely, specific, and balanced performance feedback also accelerates development. Future leaders are most likely to be responsive to feedback if they believe the supervisor delivering it is doing so in the spirit of helping to advance their careers. Offer encouragement and coaching as individuals take on new responsibilities.
7. Nurture a growth mindset: How do you create an ongoing conversation focused on learning rather than default to an annual event focused on past performance
A "growth mindset" emphasizes that all individuals can grow and improve their skills and abilities in specific areas. Future leaders' ability to embrace this perspective when stretching outside their comfort zone or experiencing setbacks as they build new skills becomes a critical success factor for growth. The ability to learn from experiences and apply this learning to future challenges and stretch assignments often differentiates promising next-generation leaders.
Integrate development discussions during check-in meetings to keep development fresh and ensure ongoing dialogue between the future leader and supervisor. As one future leader stated, “My supervisor and I reserve a portion of each check-in meeting to talk about my development plan. It's a helpful practice that keeps us both focused on the skills I'm working on."
Think of the development plan as a living, breathing document, and modify it as individuals build mastery in their target skill sets and key leadership skills.
And here's one cautionary note: Too often development plans sit on the shelf, and both future leaders and mentors default to viewing the plan itself as the end goal rather than “working the plan” continuously to grow and advance.
Taking a proactive approach to these recommendations can set you well on your way to identifying and helping your top talent transition into future leaders. After all, the long-term success of your organization rests with the next generation.