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Future-Proof Your Business: Essential Succession Planning Strategies for Leadership Development

By February 6, 2024March 13th, 2024No Comments

Your leadership pipeline, also known as succession planning, is critical to execute your strategy. Many of us know the number one reason employees leave a company is a bad manager. Your leaders can make or break any given business results. This is why we must make sure they have the right stuff to succeed. Many new leaders are not given any skill development or mentoring so are we really setting them up for success? When individual contributors step into a leadership role for the first time, it can be an eye opener as it requires an entirely different skill set. It is important to build capable leaders who understand how to lead teams or understand foundational knowledge around leading and motivating the people who work for them.

There is an opportunity to expedite the development of newer leaders if given some thought and planning. This development effort is not solely reliant on giving everything a new leader needs to know in a week-long training course. That could be a start. I am suggesting more of a program that involves a more targeted, focused approach where new leaders are exposed to good leadership practices such as coaching techniques, emotional intelligence, leadership styles, etc. in conjunction with time to define how they will incorporate it into their leadership paradigm. I believe this is important not to do in a vacuum but as the new leaders are testing and learning these new techniques or ideas, they have an opportunity to discuss their progress with more seasoned leaders within the organization that they can draw from and be coached throughout this process. This is the power of future leadership development!

I recently worked with a global healthcare company in building their leadership pipeline. They had a driving business need, new products hitting the market, and my firm was asked to develop a program to expedite high-potential sales representatives and get them ready to step up into management roles within 6-8 months. Oh, by the way, we needed to design, plan, and roll out the program in one month! This was a great challenge as most leadership development programs are designed and developed over 3-4 months on average, if not longer, based on organizational needs. What we were being asked to do was truly agile development.

I am happy to say my team stepped up and we designed a new program in 2 days. I think the key to this stage was focusing on the critical skills they needed to be successful in starting out in a new leadership role. We focused on 4 critical skills that we built a program around. We conducted a kickoff of a few days of formal, in-person training but the purpose of the training was more around skill gap development and understanding their individual strengths versus a knowledge dump. Don’t get me wrong, we did introduce some leadership concepts like coaching, but we were highly selective in what concepts would be introduced at this time.

Another key was pairing them up with a seasoned mentor/coach during the four-month program to help them in the process of discovery. The mentors sat in sessions, listened, or role-played with them in various scenarios during the program so the participants could simulate a day-in-the-life as a leader and the mentors would observe how they performed. After each activity, they would spend time with their mentees to debrief how they did in the given scenario. It was a really powerful way to see how reflective the learners were and how thoughtful the mentors guided the process. Everyone was involved and invested in this process. I think the key is to find the right mentors within your organization who have a passion for developing people to make these types of programs work.

This is an example of a success story. They don’t all go that way, unfortunately. One of the most challenging aspects I hear often from my clients was the selection of leaders and how critical it is in finding the right leaders. I have seen most organizations, especially at the front-line leader level, look to promote the highest-performing individual contributor to leadership roles. This is not the best strategy as being a leader involves a totally different mindset and skill. You must have a passion for developing and coaching others. Just because you excel as a top salesperson in your company does not translate to a great leader. In fact, I would say it is highly unlikely that the top salesperson will be a good leader. Again, there are very different skill sets required to be successful. I am not saying that they can’t make the transition, many do. However, there is a shift in expectations and skills that will make you successful at this level. You should not promote high-performing sales leads just so they can achieve extra money or a title. There needs to be another career track for those who are perfectly happy being individual contributors and can still have growth in their area of expertise without direct reports. Both paths should be viable career tracks.

Another way to decipher who should be tapped to move into a leadership role is by defining what leadership attributes and values your organization aspires or needs. How are leaders expected to develop their people? Do they understand the culture and how to shape that in the organization? They should be willing to develop themselves to understand what motivates their employees to higher levels of performance. I came across a great way to frame the multi-faceted aspects of a leader in my research. It is called the Knowing, Doing, and Being Gap, which is research compiled by researchers at Harvard Business School. It emphasizes that it isn’t enough for leaders to be exposed to leadership concepts. They need to live and breathe the concepts in their own teams by testing out what works on their team. As they test and learn, they will become more successful leaders over time and know when to leverage different tools or techniques as they build their confidence in leading teams. This aspect also covers more subtle and non-verbal elements of leadership that speak volumes to teams. It is not always the words you use but more the actions you take that your team members pick up on.

Your organization can also develop predictive analytics for leaders in your organization. This might look like the percentage turnover in front-line supervisors, the number of high-potential leaders promoted, or engagement results. These metrics can be shared with key business stakeholders across the organization. Additionally, using leadership forecasting to better understand current and future needs and gaps throughout your organization can be useful. One technique is to use scenario planning to predict leadership gaps. Asking what might happen if certain events happen within your organization can help you to better understand the business impact. As an example, how many younger leaders in positions today can be expected to leave if not promoted in the next 12 months? Think about other triggering events that you can use to plan for and mitigate any future events to minimize disruption to the business. One of the biggest challenges in business today are shortage of critical roles and leadership pipelines. Using some of these techniques can give you and your organization an advantage because you are developing strategies to address issues if they come to fruition. It is a critical risk mitigation strategy for your organization. The end game is to have the right leaders at the right place at the right time. This is where planning and execution collide.

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