Building & nurturing the leaders of tomorrow through employee development

Why is leadership important?

Let’s face it: At the core of every successful company, is a team of good leaders making good decisions.

It’s been said countless times that a company’s greatest assets are its own employees. Besides, as organisations face accelerated disruption in a digital era, many are looking to leverage their most powerful resource to solve the problems of today and tomorrow: their people.

Bad management is one of the top contributors to low employee engagement, and ultimately, poor retention.

As has been said, people join companies, but they leave managers. The reality is many successful employees will become people managers at some point during their careers, despite the fact that they don’t have the right experience or skills when they step into the role.

Companies and business owners can’t just sit back and wait for new leaders to arrive, fully developed.

They must actively identify employees with leadership potential, and then find ways to nurture and develop that potential. Leaving talent development to chance isn’t a good option for any organisation, but it’s critically important for companies or business owners who are thinking of retiring or who have an aging workforce.

As the nature of work continues to change, and the war for talent wages on, we must invest in foundational leadership development at every level in the organisation: from recent graduates to experienced senior managers. Learn how you can nurture your future leaders by helping your employees reach their full potential.

Identifying leaders

Try to first identify and develop your company’s most promising leaders now, and in the future, with these tips:

Look for employees who:

Taking initiative is crucial to leading. Reward employees who come to you with solutions for problems, who step up when a project needs to be done, and who seek out opportunities for professional growth. “You can’t force participation or improvement on employees who aren’t dedicated to it,” notes Krister Ungerböck, speaker, author and CEO coach. “When an employee doesn’t volunteer for more educational or professional opportunities, that should tell you how well suited he or she is for a management role.”

You’ll also want to invest in people who invest in themselves outside of work. Harvard Business Review has reported that about one-third of the most successful CEOs in the world have MBAs, so aiding your team’s educational efforts can only help your efforts to grow leaders from within.

Look for employees who are investing in their long-term future — whether by getting an MBA, earning a professional certification or pursuing another educational opportunity – and assist them however you can. Offering tuition assistance, flexible scheduling around class schedules and time off for professional development workshops could go a long way.

If someone is humble about her work, she’ll always be open to suggestions for improvement. That lifelong learner mentality is crucial for leaders. “Humbleness comes with selflessness,” says Saahil Goel, CEO and founder of Kraftly. “Once you accept the equality between your team and yourself, it helps in creating a healthy learning environment in the company.”

And there’s another reason leaders should practice humility. According to psychologist Sherrie Campbell, people aren’t as eager to follow a leader who is perceived as perfect. When leaders make themselves vulnerable, it helps others feel accepted by and connected to them. That, in turn, encourages followers to become more open to trusting and learning from leaders.

You can foster humility in your nascent leaders by helping them gain greater self-awareness of both their strengths (via Gallup’s Clifton Strengths assessment, for example) and their weaknesses. When you frame discussions about improving weaknesses as an opportunity for growth, these become positive conversations rather than negative ones.

Think back to your last meeting. Was there a team member who argued persuasively for a particular course of action? Another who managed to convey next steps in a thorough but concise way? Being an effective communicator is key to being an effective leader. Leaders prepare what they’re going to say in advance, yet they’re comfortable speaking off the cuff — the ability to think on one’s feet is an important leadership quality.

And leaders know that perhaps the biggest secret to communication is to be an active listener. “It’s more important to listen than it is to talk most of the time,” argues speaker and performance strategist Matt Mayberry. “How else can you learn about what needs to be done to improve a situation?” Fortunately, there are myriad exercises that can be used to boost your employees’ active listening skills.

You could divide team members into small groups and have them work through the story line exercise, for example. In that activity, someone begins a story, then the person next to him summarizes the first few lines and adds to the story. Active listeners should be able to paraphrase what they’ve just heard, and such exercises can help would-be leaders hone that vital skill.

How do leaders develop?

Amongst the leaders I met, there was widespread agreement that leaders aren’t born, they are developed. 

Emotional intelligence, emotional regulation, and high self-awareness are necessary elements for effective leaders. As leaders clarify what they stand for, their values, and what matters most to them, they gain mastery of themselves. Then they are primed to lead others by example and by modelling. 

Here are key strategies you could utilise in your leadership development once you’ve hired and/or identified your own future leaders:

Ensure that your future leaders are able to fully appreciate all aspects of your business, not just their current department. You should also encourage them to gain a broad understanding of your industry as well the future possible directions for your organisation. This is essential knowledge for any future business manager who may one day make the decisions that shape your organisation.

Leadership development works best when your future leaders understand the importance of all the different roles in your organisation. One day, it will be them making decisions that could affect all areas of the business, so it’s important that they develop an understanding from different perspectives.

Organisations must be ready to post not yet fully-proven talent into more senior or significantly different roles to accelerate and broaden their learning. One example of how organisations can manage the increased risks associated with this is choosing developmental roles that are well-established and well-known so that early signs of derailment can be spotted easily and that experienced leaders who are familiar with the role can be drawn upon for support. Individuals must also be ready to leave behind successful roles to take on stretching and unfamiliar roles where success is not guaranteed.

While it can be difficult to find the balance between pushing too far and bringing out the best possible performance, your future leaders need adequate space to succeed. Setting high, yet achievable standards can give your high potentials a chance to step up to the occasion while developing the confidence they need to grow. If they misstep, remember that failure can be a necessary step to cultivating true leadership potential.

Failures can be costly, so its little wonder many budding leaders avoid taking risks. Ironically, risk intolerance often ends up costing employers more.

Placing your future leaders in real business situations will push and stretch them as much as possible while they attempt to solve or overcome the challenges you give them. Giving them difficult or heavy projects will reveal their capabilities and capacities as well as develop their critical thinking skills and creativity when faced with unfamiliar tasks. They will learn new skills, and you’ll enhance their commitment to your organisation by boosting their confidence in what they can achieve.

As an employer, you have a responsibility to support all your employees and your future leaders who will depend on you for support while they further their careers. Not all the decisions they make will be your ideal course of action, yet outwardly showing support for your future leaders demonstrates trust and respect in them.

Also, don’t punish failure, as it is part of success. Coaching an employee through a mistake is a much better approach. Nobody ever got to be the best at something without doing it wrong along the way. An effective leader helps their team to learn from their errors to avoid them in the future. Failure is an opportunity to see how to do something better and more intelligently next time – so treat mistakes as such.

Coaching and mentoring are powerful components that play vital, and slightly different roles in growing employees into leaders.

Mentoring differs from coaching in that it generally occurs over a longer period of time and focuses on developing the individual holistically for the future. 

Aspiring leaders should feel that there is someone they can turn to for advice, guidance, and support on a professional level. You can appoint mentors by choosing your current leaders, or ask retired executives or relevant professionals in other companies for their input. 

Ideally you should have a structured program to help talented staff members gain the skills they will need to eventually take over. A mentorship program, where they can watch the way you operate up close, is also a good idea so they can see good leadership modelled to them. 

Coaching normally focuses on the short-term. Coaching helps an individual overcome a specific, current issue or performance challenge.  Used together, mentoring and coaching strengthen and mature future leaders.

Coaching can also provide needed personal reflection. It is not the experience itself but the learning we draw from it that leads to development. Personal reflection, which is about taking a step back to review what we can learn from a situation, helps to maximise the learning that a leader can extract from each experience. Regular reflection allows an accelerated leader to avoid making the same mistake twice, getting up to speed faster in new situations and dealing more effectively with unexpected events.

Effective leaders have the ability to communicate well, motivate their team, handle and delegate responsibilities, listen to feedback, and have the flexibility to solve problems in an ever-changing workplace.

Soft skills are extremely important, both as a leader and as an employee, since technological expertise alone can never compensate for teamwork, motivation, creative and critical thinking or conflict resolution. Soft skills enable people to navigate their environment, work well with others, perform well and achieve their goals with complementing hard skills. Understanding each one and how to develop it will give you an advantage over your competition.

The cornerstone of any great leader is the ability to not only communicate well and build rapport, but also be able to adapt to all levels of the business and kinds of personalities.
One of the biggest challenges you will have in terms of leadership has to do with people, and the ability to lead them.

While technical skills are important, study after study shows that organisations that prioritise soft skills will see the highest return on their investment. To eventually lead a team towards transformation, your high potentials will need to prioritise inner transformation first and foremost.

What you’ll find is that some of your employees will show high performance, but they just aren’t cut out to be leaders, as much as they’d like to be in that role.

Sure, performance is a measure of ability and expertise, and necessary to identify a leader, but you need to look beyond performance to understand an employee’s desire and aptitude to grow, develop others, cast a vision, communicate superbly, build a team, and influence all levels of the organisation. Proceed with caution, and always give more weight to potential than performance on the leadership scale.

Self-confidence is an important aspect of leadership and management. Without it, people who aspire to leadership will be less effective leaders.

When you build self-confidence, you start to back yourself. You start to believe that you’re capable. You start to believe that you are worth it, and that you know what you are talking about. When you spend most of your time feeling comfortable and safe, you can feel incredibly exposed when something doesn’t go quite to plan. But when you push yourself out of your comfort zone, you start to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Once you are comfortable with the unknown and the uncertain, problems generally become easier to overcome, and are less stressful.

Confidence is the foundation of leadership. You can teach a leader to become more decisive; a better communicator; how to coach, mentor and hold team members accountable; and many other fundamentals of leadership.

Yet, without that leader first believing in himself or herself, true leadership will exist only in title.

Generally, when a leader exhibits confidence, it makes it easier to trust that leader, and people want to work with leaders they trust.

Without regular constructive feedback, your leadership development program can fail before it has had a chance to flourish. Let your future leaders know how they are performing, and give them praise and advice to encourage them on their journey. They will be eager to find out if they are doing a good job and if there are any areas for improvement or further development. Feedback will help you to identify early on if there are any issues or if you need to make any changes to the pace or structure of their development.

Don’t forget to give them a pat on the back. This sounds very simple and in theory, it should be. However, many employees say that they don’t feel valued by their boss.

Recognising employee achievements and success stories will help you to boost morale within your team. Don’t forget that when giving recognition, you should praise both individual and team successes. So, patting your employees on the back, no matter how small or big their success, will make them feel more motivated and confident in their own abilities. Most importantly, it will show them that the business as a whole appreciates them.

Reward them accordingly. This may be in the form of performance goals, the challenge of further responsibility, a new job title, financial incentives or even a greater stake in the company’s future or the company itself. Be sure you know what motivates them and tailor your reward system accordingly. However you reward them, your future leaders will appreciate the gestures and feel more motivated and committed to sharing in the vision of your organisation.

Finally, if you know you have high-potentials who will make exceptional leaders, they may not know it themselves, so don’t thwart their development! Help them become more aware of their unique skills, and bring out their strengths and talents so they can accelerate their development.

Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.

Employees will likely imitate, for better or worse, the management style they’ve seen first-hand.

Without the opportunity to learn best practices in management or general leadership skills, companies are perpetuating a vicious cycle of bad leaders that can ultimately lead to bigger problems across the company. It’s your duty to weave training and career development opportunities into the fabric of your company culture.

Great leaders are advocates of fostering the talents of those they lead. 

By developing skills for future leadership, they are assuring an organisation’s longevity, quality talent and increased productivity.

And remember, as a leader yourself, your management team will look to you as an example to follow and for best practice. Review your own approach from time to time to ensure you lead by example and give your future leaders the role model they need.

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