Five ways to bring out the leaders in your employees

L&D consultant

Whatever your business, whatever your industry, strong leadership talent is like gold dust. People are right to desire capable leaders, particularly in times of frequent change or economic uncertainty when leadership can make or break a business. In the infographic we published late last year, however, we revealed that only 36% of businesses feel prepared to fill leadership vacancies, with a worrying 60% of companies reporting a significant shortage of leadership capability.

The problem is this: you might be searching for the best leadership candidates on the market, but so is everybody else – everyone is trying to draw from the same talent pool. One thing you have that your competitors don’t, however, is your existing staff. You could be sitting on a goldmine of leadership talent already – all it might need is for you to look inwards and focus on development, rather than relying on recruitment alone.

1. Focus on potential

There is a tendency for people to want, or expect, their leaders to come ‘ready-made,’ without being prepared to commit to somebody’s development. But this approach needlessly excludes people who have the potential to be great leaders with the right development and exposure.

Don’t just focus on the people at the top of your organisation – look at those nearer the beginning of their career who are showing leadership potential, work out what type of development would get them from where they are to where they need to be in relation to your organisational requirements, and set them on that learning path.

2. Expose them to opportunities                 

Perhaps the most powerful leadership development comes from exposure to a breadth of different experiences. We frequently talk about the ‘70:20:10’ approach, where experience makes up the majority (70%) of learning, and nowhere is this model more relevant and applicable than with leadership development.

If you want well-rounded, capable, credible leaders, who are able to operate competently across your business, you need to give them the opportunity to take on a wide range of different roles and responsibilities. Provide your leaders with the right kind of experiences and the payback in their development will be huge, and lasting.

3. Start their development early

Bringing out great leaders within your employees is never going to be a quick fix or overnight solution. It is something for which you need to take a long-term view, building up a solid leadership talent pipeline that will serve your business for years to come.

Don’t just focus on people who are already established in their careers, or in senior management positions. Take time to assess those early on in their careers, and help them grow and develop into the leaders your business needs as they progress. Build a robust succession plan so that you know who will replace key leaders if they leave the business.                                                                                         

4. Give them role models

Having a great role model can be instrumental in a leader’s development. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to partner them up with an employee in your own organisation (although, if possible, this can be extremely effective for both parties) – it could mean showing them examples of great leaders externally, perhaps within your industry, or perhaps just leaders who display the right types of behaviours.

Then, importantly, they need to be given the time and facility to reflect on why those leaders are so effective – why they are so successful, how their behaviours have impacted on the company’s success, and so on. This reflection time can provide a valuable learning experience for a developing leader.

5. Go outdoors

I’m not suggesting you move all your employees’ desks into the car park. What I would suggest, however, is outdoor experiential learning, which can be a powerful experience. By putting people into an uncomfortable, unfamiliar, physical environment, and really putting them through their paces, you provide them with mental challenges and learning experiences that are simply not possible in an indoor setting.

Experiential learning doesn’t have to be about climbing a mountain or traversing a canyon, however – you can achieve some really powerful leadership development just by taking people out of the office or classroom environment. The key is to make sure you are able to link any activities with the learning objectives, and always give them the opportunity to reflect on what they have gained from it and how they can apply that learning back at work.

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When it comes to developing strong leaders, training is not necessarily going to be sufficient. Training may form part of the solution – developing certain behaviours or skills – but ultimately it comes down to giving those people the experiences they need in order to build their confidence and ability as leaders. This means you need to put a certain amount of trust in your potential leaders, give them the right opportunities to lead, facilitate the learning which supports that, let them take responsibility for their own development, and then watch them grow.

For more information, read our guide to identifying and developing your staff with high leadership potential in Enhance magazine.