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Developing Future Leaders

By the year 2011, the leading edge of the baby boom workforce will turn 65—making them eligible for retirement. That generation's collective wisdom will leave with them unless organizations have taken steps to transfer that knowledge to their younger employees. That’s why succession planning and knowledge sharing are now vitally important to an organization's overall strategy.

Earlier this year I was in Germany working with a group of "high potentials"—employees who had been selected by their managers as outstanding candidates for the next generation of leaders. My client (an international organization in the high-tech industry) is investing substantially in training, coaching and mentoring opportunities for this talented group of professionals.

Unfortunately, that company's commitment to leadership development is in direct contrast to what I've seen in many other organizations. Definitive, purposeful succession planning is rare, even at the very highest corporate levels. Too often the "bench strength" in leadership is so poor that careers stall because no one else has been groomed as a management successor. Companies that don't address this issue now are going to be at a serious disadvantage in the very near future, as effectiveness leadership is a proven source of competitive advantage.

Organizations can't just sit back and wait for new leaders to arrive, fully developed. They must actively seek out people with leadership potential and then find ways to nurture and develop that potential. Doing this right requires a serious commitment of both time and resources. But increasingly, we’re seeing that this commitment is the key to what separates good companies from great companies. The truly great ones make leadership develop leaders a priority.

Here's how . . .
The process begins with the early identification of leadership talent and the realization that under certain circumstances leadership potential is easy to spot. In an area of complex problems or in times of crisis, some people naturally rise to the top. They are proactive, reliable and thoughtful and they somehow just take control. These natural leaders speak up—and other people listen to them because they're committed to providing solutions, not just stating problems.

Joseph Pieroni, president of Sankyo Pharma, notes the emergence of informal leadership within his organization: "Every time we are in a tough situation, people point to the same two or three individuals because we feel confident these 'leaders' will go well beyond their area of responsibility and do whatever is needed."

Identifying new leaders is something that all current leaders should be responsible for—and that policy is most effective if it starts at the top. CEOs and presidents need to spend time focusing on this issue, assessing people’s leadership strengths and analyzing current and future organizational requirements.

Leadership development must start early. Management should assess each individual’s development needs at least 10 or 15 years before the person is expected to reach his or her full potential. The emphasis should be on how people should best use their time: How can their skills be leveraged in new ways? Who needs to know these people? Who should be working with them, coaching and mentoring them? What experiences would be the most advantageous to them?

Identifying potential leaders is also a smart move for managers who want to advance their own careers. As one savvy leader told me, "The minute I begin a new assignment, I start looking for people who can be groomed as my successor. I know that I won't be able to take the next step until someone else can take over my current job."

At Federal Express, employees identify themselves as candidates for leadership positions. CEO Fred Smith discovered early on that not everyone has the unique traits that leaders need to succeed in the FedEx environment. His observed: "Our Leadership Evaluation and Awareness Program explains the demands of management as well as the personal characteristics and traits needed for successful leadership. I find it interesting that, once they know the demands and requirements, some 70 percent of the participants drop out of the program."

However future leaders are identified, the next step is to find ways to nurture their potential. Along with formal educational opportunities, mentoring relationships and personal coaches, leading-edge companies make sure that key candidates receive the kind of assignments that help them grow and develop.

For example, the head of Ketchum's brand practice, also the associate director of their New York office, was offered the director position in Atlanta as a way of rounding out her expertise. That was a decision made to advance her career, from the standpoint of what would add the most value for her. Also at Ketchum, a director from the San Francisco office was moved to a leadership role in London so that he could gain international experience.

But leadership development isn't only about acquiring business skills; it's also about effective mental preparation. According to Bob Dilenschneider, CEO of The Dilenschneider Group, it’s important to keep a sense of perspective: "Keeping your balance can be extremely difficult. Since leaders play the game at the highest and lowest levels, they experience the glory of the victories as well as the disappointment of setbacks and failures. The trick is not to let the glory go to your head nor let the disappointments devastate you."

I agree with Bob. Giving people the freedom to succeed and fail—and the guidance to help them deal with both—may be the best leadership development strategy of all.