There is a perpetual debate on whether leaders are born or made (or both). Whatever the truth may be, there is always going to be a gap between a high-potential employee and the leader he or she can, and hopefully will, become. The job of development is to fill that gap and make leaders that employees willingly follow.
Employees naturally want to follow good leaders, and while many leaders are charming or energetic, that charisma will only bring them so far. Employees will only continue to follow someone who supports and challenges them. This means that certain activities have to happen in that “gap” between high potential and leader:
Start them off with the right mindset.
Good leaders are often described as “positive,” “passionate,” and “involved.” These are all attitudes that can and should be encouraged in your potential leaders. Potential leaders should first and foremost be made aware of your organization’s vision and how different roles contribute to that vision.
Next, your leaders should truly believe in your people and desire to help them succeed. They should assume that your employees are well intended and want to do good work. When leaders lead from that mindset, they will generally be more eager to share information, delegate tasks, give credit, provide feedback, and marshal influence and resources for the good of the group. Those are leaders that employees will naturally follow.
Make them self-aware.
Erika Andersen, author and contributor to Forbes.com, claims that only about one in four of the leaders she coaches sees themselves accurately. That’s a shame, because perhaps the single-most-powerful way a leader can grow is to become self-aware. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, sensitivities, and blind spots. Good leaders recognize all of these in themselves and work on those aspects that are lacking.
One of the best ways to make leaders (or potential leaders) self aware is to have them assessed by a third party specializing in assessment. When done right, assessments can reveal leadership qualities that are present and ones that need work. Investment in a good assessment, with rigorous analysis, pays for itself over time with quality leadership and less turnover.
There’s no good reason why you have to wait until a person is in a leadership position to set him or her on the road to self-awareness. Assessing your high-potential employees will prepare them for a future leadership role, helping them use their strengths and work on their weaknesses before they become an issue.
Pair them with a mentor or coach.
When someone starts with the right mindset, and has been made self-aware, that person becomes much easier to coach. The positive mindset helps them view constructive criticism as such. Self-awareness makes them aware of the changes that need to occur and the steps needed to do so.
What coaching and mentoring add is a dose of experience without the time-consuming trial-and-error learning that most leaders face on their own. Future leaders benefit from this experience and receive the necessary guidance and feedback to succeed. Mentoring can go hand-in-hand with your training program to develop quality leaders.
Teach them how to delegate.
Learning how to delegate tasks is one of the most difficult parts of becoming a leader. It is also one of the most telling differences between a leader and an individual contributor. The best leaders influence and inspire others to get results.
Delegating tasks is tricky, because there is a fine line between micro-managing direct reports and abandoning them once a task is delegated. Good leaders monitor and maintain their teams but still allow them the freedom to develop as they work.
Potential leaders have to be trained to walk this fine line. They must be comfortable with discovering the strengths and weaknesses of their team, delegating tasks appropriately, and following up. All of these are skills that can be taught.
Support them in their support.
When employees describe the best managers they’ve had, the word “supported” comes up often. Good leaders make their employees feel supported in numerous ways. They harness the resources and tools to get the job done. They give their employees the freedom to exercise their talents. They shield the team from risk, going “to bat” for them when it matters. And, of course, they encourage good work.
Managers and supervisors who feel supported will naturally lend support to others. So share resources with them. Give them some degree of freedom to lead their teams in their own personal style. Shield them from risk, especially at the start, so they can learn from their own mistakes. Have their mentor and/or their supervisor encourage them every step of the way.
No matter how “high potential” an employee is, he or she will need extensive training to become the kind of leader employees will want to follow.