How Agencies Can Find and Develop Future Leaders

Like so many problems in our organizations, the pain is mostly self-inflicted.

I’ve never met a CEO who was confident her organization was generating the leadership talent necessary to meet the needs of their changing business. The shortage of emerging leadership talent in a world seemingly mad with change and disruption is the stuff of sleepless nights for executives. And like so many problems in our organizations, the pain is mostly self-inflicted. Here are six ideas to help organizations and executives rethink emerging leader development.

1. Stop outsourcing your talent issues to H.R.

This mission critical initiative must become everyone’s business—especially managers and key contributors—with H.R. as a key enabler and supporting partner. Teach the people in your organization how to support leadership identification and development at all levels. (Easy words, difficult but essential task. This should be a focal point for learning & development.)

2. Cease relying on one-and-done leadership training.

The only real learning takes place via sustained efforts that provide opportunities for individuals to stretch, experience, flail, fail, learn, and build. Emerging leader development is never a checkbox issue. It’s a marathon and a process.

3. Raise your game for first-time, front-line managers.

In surveys in my workshops, most individuals describe their initial promotion to a manager role as a “battlefield promotion.” A majority of these respondents indicate they were left to sink or swim in their new role. Cut it out! Deliberate selection and ample nurturing via coaching, training, and constant feedback are all essential for success with front-line, first-time managers entering your leadership pipeline.

4. Refresh your competency models.

Cease relying on overly complex or outdated competency models that describe Wonder Woman and Superman or some mythical organization man of yesteryear as ideal leaders. Rethink and refresh your competency models around the following attributes:

  • A view of leadership that is more servant than autocrat.
  • Insatiable hunger for learning.
  • Strong locus of control and sense of personal accountability.
  • Comfort flowing seamlessly between leader and follower.
  • Cognizant of the power of diversity and inclusion on teams.
  • Able to foster “quick trust” in group settings.
  • Aware of the impact he/she has on forming an environment for others to do their best work and to develop in real time.
  • External orientation with the ability to see beyond the boundaries of the firm’s markets, customers, and industry.
  • “Succeed together” mentality.
  • Accepting of change as a reality and excited to promote rapid change that seizes opportunities or strengthen results.

While one might reasonably push back at me for defining a slightly more modern Wonder Woman or Superman for our team with the list above, my work with young professionals in organizations and as a management educator suggests that many or most of these attributes are already present in this generation. It’s what they know and how they think. It’s up to us to draw out these beliefs and attributes and let them put their skills to work. Enough of the b@tching about younger workers. Those of us with experience are the ones who have to change.

5. Beware “high potential” filters that are too fine.

While high-potential identification initiatives may, in fact, find some individuals that merit additional or accelerated development consideration, they also miss too many outstanding emerging leaders who pass through the filters unnoticed.

For example, few roles hold more promise for broader leadership contribution than those of product manager. This particular role exemplifies the attributes identified above, with individuals thriving as informal leaders who guide investments and initiatives that drive growth, often with little formal power or authority. Any informal or integrator leader role (e.g. project manager) represents significant emerging leader potential.

Additionally, many programs I encounter do stop short of delivering on the intent. They incorporate a process to identify high potentials, but breakdown when it comes to doing anything about it.

6. Look for talent in unusual places.

Recognize that the best talent for your emerging leader pool might be out of ordinary sight. In my upcoming book: Level-Up Emerging Leader Development, I offer a string of anecdotes from managers who broke the rules in looking for talent in ordinary walks of life way beyond the boundaries of their firms or industries.

Our systems for identifying and developing emerging leaders are mostly missing in action or based on old world rules. It’s time we level-up emerging leader development in our organizations with thinking and approaches that reflect the demands of this new environment.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. He writes the Leadership Caffeine blog.