Growing leaders internally: what works and what does not

One common challenge in organizations of all colours and size is paucity of next line of leadership. While many companies have various types of employee development programs, very few of them help in creating a pool of leaders.  A recent survey of employee engagement spend indicates less than 10% of companies find returns from the employee engagement and development significant. A challenge grapple is how to turn career “managers” from short-haul oriented, self-centred individuals to leaders. Leadership is all about imbibing and living with sense of ownership, intense commitment for outcomes not just results and sense of urgency in reaching the outcomes.

Examples of failed leadership development experiences in many companies indicate three common challenges. Early push of an employee into a leadership position when he/she was not sure about the haul is the first cause of failure.  While the management may have identified the potential of the individual to be leader and pushed him/her to the pedestal the individual may have certain apprehension.  Capability or commitment required for the long haul of company’s growth, or utility of the job itself may inhibit the individual from embracing the new role. If the employee happens to come with an expiry date (an euphemism for an employee who stays in a job to a particular period so as to meet certain pre-requisites for a certification or industry experience), thrusting her/him with the leadership may not work.   Leadership experiments fail if they clear assessments are not carried out. Before even thrusting an individual to a leadership role, identify her/his strengths, values, positive orientation towards the future and overall satisfaction with the job and organization. Second area leadership development programs fail is insufficient exposure to challenges and associated experiences.  By placing the  individuals in cocoon and not allowing them to struggle in the new role limits their learning on the job. Finally, leadership development fails if continuous assessment of current skills and capabilities and gaps are not done.

Growing leaders internally is a process that requires planning, high intensity of follow through, and freedom to emerge from failures. Leadership engine can be sustained by adopting following principles.

  1. Identify and develop them early: Most successful internal leadership programs quickly identify leadership potentials and others very quickly. Look for obvious signs of quality of work, sense of ownership of team, quality of feedbacks to colleagues, penchant to DIM (do it myself), initiative for breaks with team, etc.
  2.  Leadership at all levels: Internal leadership program must not restrict to a certain layer of organization, but rather be pursued as a common program across the organization. Internal leaders can emerge at various levels and the program must be flexible enough to identify and sustain leaderships of various forms. Leadership at some level may be highly task oriented, structured, process oriented, while leadership at another level may be one of managing unstructured, complex and volatile environment.
  3.  Assess their skills and capabilities, and identify right intervention strategies: Identify their life goals, self-esteem, creativity, optimism, happiness, personal strengths and motivation of the individual. Identify their natural leadership styles and design appropriate intervention strategies.
  4.  Support them with mentors: Internal leaders require mentors who could be from the company or outside. They act as sounding boards, motivational support and dogma sinks.
  5.  Rotate: Nothing works like a comprehensive view of the organization for would be leaders. Job rotation or a new geography broadens the work experience.
  6.  Push them to network smarter: Internal leadership program can be successful only if strong network outcomes are defined and orchestrated.  Goad the identified individuals to connect with their peers in professional forums, industry events, seminars and think tanks. Encourage them to express and reach out in the social media, by curating and directing their content appropriately.
  7.  Expose them to experience, and allow them to struggle:  Internal leadership development must have 3 quarter plans that help the individual gain practical experience of leading and managing at the newer plane.  If failures or setback happens, allow the individuals to mull over and gain from the experience. While setting them to win is important, the win must be cherished as self-gained.
  8.  Help them to do self-review: Internal leadership program thrive if platforms and process to self-review without the stigma of failures or low outcomes are encouraged. Create a informal self-review mechanisms where the individual can elicit the feedback, discuss and digest and push the agenda of improvement by themselves.

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