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A Strategy for Developing a Self-Sustaining Leadership Bench

One of the most common questions I hear from senior executives the last couple of years is how to develop a strong bench of future leaders who will succeed them. As America’s Baby Boom generation reaches retirement age, executives are not confident that they’ve been identifying and developing potential leaders who can take the helm as current leaders go out to pasture.


You’d be surprised at how many companies have no strategy or sustained focus on succession planning for their organizations. Too often they are caught unaware when a leader leaves and/or announces retirement and there are no potential leaders to take their place. Additionally, many organizations are experiencing growth and quickly find out they have nobody who has the right skill set to take charge of new and expanding departments or teams.


It’s more important than ever to focus energy and effort in this area for the long-term health of the company. Doing so also provides a competitive advantage to building a culture of growth and development. The following will provide the necessary steps for implementing a leadership development strategy in your organization.


Hire for Leadership Skill

First, your hiring mindset needs to be on identifying potential leaders when interviewing candidates. Not that you want every employee to want to be a people leader, but leadership skills go beyond just managing people.


Second, train all recruiters and hiring managers on behavioral interviewing techniques that focus on leadership and emotional intelligence competencies.


Third, use emotional intelligence and leadership assessments to identify leadership traits. Administer the assessments to all current employees and to all candidates. By doing so you get an objective view of the leadership potential, and you also will be collecting invaluable data that can be used in the future for more predictive analysis of what specifically works best in your culture.


Review Regularly to Identify Employees with Leadership Potential

The executive team needs to discuss and review all current high potential leadership employees consistently. This needs to be a topic monthly in executive meetings. Additionally, at the 3, 5, and 7 year mark of their tenure with your organization, the executive team needs to discuss and evaluate the leadership potential and any growth in that area over their tenure with your organization.


Develop and Coach your High-Potential Employees

Leadership development and growth needs to be a constant focus and conversation within an organization.


All high potentials identified by the leadership team should go through a formal leadership development program (minimum six-month duration) and be assigned an external coach and/or an internal mentor. Your leadership development program should include components that focus on emotional intelligence and on controlling emotions; building trust; communicating effectively, coaching rather than judging; motivating and engaging direct reports; conducting crucial conversations; and holding others (and oneself) accountable.


Internal mentorship and coaching should be ongoing and consistent, and all current leaders need to have regular 1:1 meetings with their direct reports and future leaders. This 1:1 time can be used for effective coaching and mentoring for future leaders.


Challenge Potential Leaders with Stretch Goals

Focus on the critical areas of your business and identify “stretch” assignments that can be given to the high potentials to challenge them and observe how they perform in real situations. This will also test your current leaders’ ability to delegate to future leaders.


A challenge goal might come in the form of a high potential leader leading a special project or chairing a committee within the organization. Such a goal might include them in parts of the strategic planning process and/or allow them to sit in on key decision discussions with the current leadership team.


Delegate the stretch assignment, be clear on when you want the leadership candidate to get on your calendar(s) to provide updates. Continue to provide coaching and mentorship, but stay focused on observing their leadership skills in this process.


Recognize and Reward Achievements

After assigning stretch assignments, focus on managing the outcomes, recognition, and reward. As previously mentioned, your current leaders will provide ongoing coaching throughout the stretch assignment. This also includes providing recognition along the way as certain milestones and goals are achieved.


Recognize and reward the desired leadership skills you observe from the high potentials in this process. This will build specific confidence with the future leaders, and it also gives them a positive example of how to recognize the accomplishments of the people they will lead in the future.


Prepare for Succession and Transition Leaders Smoothly

Specific to succession planning and filling leadership vacancies due to retirements, the leadership transition process should also be a point of emphasis. This will allow for a smooth transition and set the new leader up for success. Communicate to current and future leaders a clear timeline and expectations for smooth transition. After the internal successor has been identified, it is helpful to identify a handover period for preparing the new leader to transition into their new role while the current leader transitions out of the role. In this way, companies can capture the wisdom of experienced leaders to aid in educating and developing future leaders. I recently coached two leaders through this succession planning and leadership transition process, and we outlined an 18-month strategy for knowledge transfer. This also included the knowledge of the new leader’s new team, their motivations, talents, and the best ways to work with each person. This way, the new leader is ahead of the learning curve, and the current team begins to learn more about their new leader and to begin developing communication and building trusted relationships.


Let your New Leaders Lead

When new leaders take over, make sure you don’t get caught in the trap of not letting the new leader lead. Hopefully, by this point, you have done a good job in the areas previously outlined, and now it’s time to let the new leader apply their carefully honed leadership skills.


Continue to be a mentor and coach to the young leader and know they will make some mistakes along the way, which we all do, but remember that the key is to show confidence in their leadership skills.


Build a Culture that Nurtures Future Leaders

Leadership skills aren’t something you can just acquire and then magically have it all figured out. There’s always opportunity for growth and development. Build a culture of consistently looking for, identifying, and developing leaders. This is a never-ending process that starts with reviewing a candidate’s resume and continues throughout an employee’s tenure. To ensure you will be ready when the next retirement rolls around, ensure that up and coming leaders are always the focus of your executive team.

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