Finding and developing the right talent for our changing world of work ranks high on the priority lists of most CEOs and management teams. Parse out the many activities involved in recruiting and building the workforce of tomorrow, and you find emerging leader development at or near the top of the list, right where it should be.

While agreement on the importance of identifying and supporting emerging leaders is widespread, methodologies and approaches vary widely across organizations and from executive-to-executive. Many emerging leader development methods are semi-structured (or semi-ad-hoc), and a good number have gaps in a few key areas that if remedied would strengthen results significantly.

This article shares guidance for filling four large gaps I frequently see in emerging leader programs.

4 Big Gaps to Fill in Your Emerging Leader Development Program:

1. The Leadership Pipeline Starts at the Front-Line:

Most emerging leader initiatives kick-in somewhere north of the group we describe as front-line. I worked with a firm that did a spectacular job moving senior managers and directors to the lower rungs of the executive ranks. Unfortunately, their work with front-line supervisors and managers left a lot of performance on the table.

  • Promotions were more out of expediency—there was little advance vetting.
  • Post-promotion support for training and coaching was at the discretion of the direct manager. Given the strains placed on the firm’s mid-level managers, this work took a backseat to the daily firefighting.
  • Failure rates within the first year hovered at around 50%.

The real costs from this firm’s mismanagement of their front-line leadership talent development efforts were obscured by poor measurement systems. Once we examined team performance, internal and external customer satisfaction and employee engagement, in and around these groups, the numbers became painfully visible.

One additional data point convinced senior management it was time to invest in front-line leader development. It turned out that in the past five years, none of the firm’s front-line managers had moved into a higher leadership role. The firm’s emerging leader pipeline was broken at the source!

We implemented a much more rigorous vetting and post-promotion coaching program, and after one year all of those numbers improved significantly.

2. Strive to See Beyond and Behind the Superstars:

The bright light emanating from the technical and vocational superstars can blind managers to those competent performers who have excellent leadership potential.

The competent performer with high degrees of social and emotional intelligence, good critical thinking skills, and an affinity for strengthening group work, may be an outstanding candidate for your emerging leader initiative. Remember, your role and the role of your internal programs is to draw out the leadership potential in everyone, not just serve as a fast-track for technical superstars.

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3. Look for Leadership AND Followership in the Same Individuals:

I owe a colleague a debt of gratitude for teaching me this valuable lesson. My preoccupation as an executive was on the behaviors and attributes we most associate with leadership. My colleague impressed upon me the importance of great leaders being great followers, and we incorporated this into our program.

It turns out; the ability to lead and follow is even more relevant today in our world of rapid change and extreme uncertainty than in previous, more stable eras. Instead of leadership as a title in a hierarchy, leadership for team initiatives is and should be more about identifying who’s right for the particular situation. Individuals serve as the leader for one major project and support a leader for the next project.
It’s leadership and followership.

4. Move Beyond Annual or One and Done Training to a Broader, Sustained Program

I love training. Excellent training is one piece of the puzzle for emerging leaders. Experiential learning, rotating assignments, increasingly difficult new challenges and coaching, coaching, coaching, are the other pieces.

However, I turn down one-and-done training work in my emerging leader consulting practice because it doesn’t work. I know this from my executive days, and I know this as a practitioner.

Emerging leader development takes place over time and via a variety of experiences that trigger learning via different media. Sustained initiatives offer time for individuals to cultivate new skills and strengthen or eliminate behaviors. Rotational assignments help round out perspectives and challenge individuals to adapt and learn beyond their core vocation or technical training. And all of this offers senior managers increased opportunities to observe individuals grow (or not) over time.

When working with a firm that has traditionally focused on training, the idea of a sustained program sounds expensive and challenging to administrate. In reality, the costs pale in comparison to the benefits. And as identified, this is indeed a top priority for your firm.

Training is great—as long as it is part of a larger set of activities.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The hard work of developing emerging leaders is a full contact job for every manager in a firm. It starts by attracting the right talent into the funnel and stretches from the front-lines to the C-Suite. It takes deliberate effort, focused coordination and unyielding support from managers at all levels. And since all of our firms are in a battle to survive and thrive in our world of change, you cannot afford to get this wrong.

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