How to Identify and Nurture the Leadership Potential of Your Employees
Your company's future leaders are probably right under your nose. Here's how to sniff them out -- and help them grow into the role.
Think about the best leader you’ve ever had at any point in your life. It might be your current boss; it could be a volunteer coordinator from college. It might even be your high school football coach. He or she embraced the characteristics of a capable and inspiring leader, no matter his or her profession.
The task of identifying leaders challenges every company. That’s why it’s important to encourage every member of your team to think like a leader, no matter what job title he carries. If you wait to coach someone on leadership until he eventually occupies a managerial position, you’ll be too late. You should be teaching your employees to be leaders from day one.
When seeking new managers and leaders for your company, promoting from within may prove more effective than hiring an external candidate. Elevating someone who already works for you means that individual will need less time to get up to speed. Also, leveraging your company’s growth into professional growth for your current team members can only make your employees feel more optimistic about their path at your organization. If you take this approach of promoting from within, you’ll be in good company: Hearst Magazines, Palo Alto Networks, Gap and Twilio all focus on career mobility for those they hire.
And promoting from within serves a selfish purpose, too: Leaders can create succession plans, meaning they can eventually move on to other projects without worrying about what they're leaving behind. They can groom internal leaders and help them gain perspective and context they normally wouldn't get until several years into a leadership role.
Related: Build Your Management Team
Business leaders who want to build the best possible leadership team can’t rely on impressive résumés or past experience. To identify and develop your company’s most promising leaders now and in the future, look for employees who:
1. Take initiative
Taking initiative is crucial to leading. Reward employees who come to you with solutions for problems, who step up when a project needs to be done and who seek out opportunities for professional growth. “You can’t force participation or improvement on employees who aren’t dedicated to it,” notes Krister Ungerböck, speaker, author and CEO coach. “When an employee doesn’t volunteer for more educational or professional opportunities, that should tell you how well suited he or she is for a management role.”
You’ll also want to invest in people who invest in themselves outside of work. Harvard Business Review has reported that about one-third of the most successful CEOs in the world have MBAs, so aiding your team’s educational efforts can only help your efforts to grow leaders from within.
Look for employees who are investing in their long-term future -- whether by getting an MBA, earning a professional certification or pursuing another educational opportunity – and assist them however you can. Offering tuition assistance, flexible scheduling around class schedules and time off for professional development workshops could go a long way.
2. Show humility
If someone is humble about her work, she'll always be open to suggestions for improvement. That lifelong learner mentality is crucial for leaders. “Humbleness comes with selflessness,” says Saahil Goel, CEO and founder of Kraftly. “Once you accept the equality between your team and yourself, it helps in creating a healthy learning environment in the company.”
And there’s another reason leaders should practice humility. According to psychologist Sherrie Campbell, people aren’t as eager to follow a leader who's perceived as perfect. When leaders make themselves vulnerable, it helps others feel accepted by and connected to them. That, in turn, encourages followers to become more open to trusting and learning from leaders.
You can foster humility in your nascent leaders by helping them gain greater self-awareness of both their strengths (via Gallup’s CliftonStrengths assessment, for example) and their weaknesses. When you frame discussions about improving weaknesses as an opportunity for growth, these become positive conversations rather than negative ones.
3. Can speak well -- and listen better
Think back to your last meeting. Was there a team member who argued persuasively for a particular course of action? Another who managed to convey next steps in a thorough but concise way? Being an effective communicator is key to being an effective leader. Leaders prepare what they’re going to say in advance, yet they're comfortable speaking extemporaneously -- the ability to think on one’s feet is an important leadership quality.
And leaders know that perhaps the biggest secret to communication is to be an active listener. “It’s more important to listen than it is to talk most of the time,” argues speaker and performance strategist Matt Mayberry. “How else can you learn about what needs to be done to improve a situation?” Fortunately, there are myriad exercises that can be used to boost your employees’ active listening skills.
You could divide team members into small groups and have them work through the story line exercise, for example. In that activity, someone begins a story, then the person next to him summarizes the first few lines and adds to the story. Active listeners should be able to paraphrase what they’ve just heard, and such exercises can help would-be leaders hone that vital skill.
In a business environment that grows more complex every day, having a team of leaders can only benefit your business. When you see the above qualities in your employees, you've likely identified the new leaders who can move your business forward today and act on opportunities that will deliver results tomorrow.
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