Help the Cream Rise – Fostering Leadership Growth
Grooming New Leaders: Let the Talent Develop Organically
Every organization tries to foster talented employees and nurture them as future leaders who will (they hope) rise through the ranks and take the enterprise to new heights of achievement.
This grand vision of leadership development leads the organization to actively hunt for likely leaders for targeted development. The problem is, every choice you make is subjective. Instead of creating an environment where the true cream of the talent pool can rise to the top naturally, the company tries to goose the process along by selecting “high potential employees” prematurely. In effect, they keep shaking the milk jug, which keeps the cream from rising!
Actively identifying winners in the competition for career advancement has obvious risks:
- You may choose high-potential candidates too early, before much leadership responsibility has been bestowed.
- You WILL miss out on great potential contributors who bloom later, or who are quieter about their achievements.
- You may lose these “passed over” people entirely, as they seek opportunity in another firm.
You need to let the development process run without picking winners. This is more expensive in the short-term, as everyone gets a development plan. But, it has higher ROI long-term; you promote the talent that best fits your needs, culture and mission.
- Latent talent blossoms better by giving everyone the chance to test their mettle with leadership assignments.
- You will spot stellar workers who need more development at the start, but have greater long-term potential.
- Others who exhibit behavior that initially seems full of potential may prove to have hidden biases or insecurities that will need a lot of a boss’ attention.
- A great candidate may prefer to remain in his or her current role, at least for now. This should not disqualify them!
Create an ongoing process through which you can assess leadership potential more deeply, without prejudging the latent talent prematurely. Cream rises to the top naturally if the milk is left to work it out organically!
How to help employees develop leadership skills
Here are attributes to observe as you track employee leadership development:
Motivation – Any employee who express a desire to embrace new challenges—such as managing people—should be given a project that offers that chance. Monitor their progress objectively, using tools like coaching, mentoring, ongoing peer review, 360s and the like. You will make better choices if you give people special assignments to demonstrate their potential for engaging and motivating others in advance of possible promotion.
Bonus benefit: Real projects like this can be designed to tackle substantive issues your organization needs to tackle anyway, adding real creative and innovative value while “testing” talent potential.
Conflict management – Mike Tyson famously said plans and intentions are great “until you get punched in the face.” How well do people lead in the face of conflict? Do they face issues directly, staying in control of how they and their team respond to events? Do you observe them focusing on doing what’s best for the long-term success of the team, not just solving the immediate problem?
Pursuit of Truth – Do your future leaders speak up to help the organization buck conventional wisdom and challenge “the way things are always done around here?” Or do they seem to default to preserving the status quo? Which mindset do you need in your leaders?
Ability – Managerial skills like time management, interpersonal communication and delegation can all be taught, so assess potential with that in mind. You seek people who show they have the desire and ability to adopt positive leadership behaviors and mindsets.
Respect – Do other workers look up to this person? How well do they wield the soft skills of relationship building? These can also be taught, but if there is a foundational ability to exhibit empathy, training, coaching and/or mentoring will build leadership skill all that much faster.
Bottom line: Work with HR to build a flexible process to allow the cream to rise to the top naturally, without the corrupting influence of pre-selection. The right mix of extra assignments, coaching, training and mentoring, for all interested people without prejudice, is our recommended path to success.