As companies emerge into a post-pandemic regime with all the new expectations, challenges and opportunities that it brings, they face a number of trends that are upending conventional management philosophies. The pace and volume of information is rising and bypassing existing hierarchies, leading to information overload. Increased automation is eroding traditional notions of predictability and control, and employees’ career expectations are changing.1
Management practices are being challenged and leaders must rise to the occasion — and they know it. Sixty percent of executives worldwide see effective leadership as a critical skill needed to prepare for changes the future will no doubt bring.2 At the same time, the understanding of what leadership means is changing: rather than a destination, it is a journey of continual learning, development, and reflection.3
Leadership is like a muscle: it needs to be exercised all the time.4 And just as professional athletes don’t start training when they’re drafted for the national team, leaders can’t wait until a promotion comes to start exercising that muscle; they need to start much earlier, in whatever position they may occupy in an organization. This is important for more than just effective succession planning; it also lets employees feel their work has greater impact.5 For this reason, companies must empower their staff to make decisions: it’s essential for developing the necessary organizational agility to cope with rapid and constant change.6
Employees with leadership skills are in high demand, and training them to one day become leaders has a tangible and positive impact on staff retention. Case in point: during the Great Resignation when millions of professionals quit their jobs, more than half of US workers cited a lack of appreciation from their managers as the cause.8 Had organizations invested in helping their talented employees to develop leadership and other skills, they may not have been impacted as greatly.
While much has been made of younger employees’ emphasis on learning skills at work, leadership development is a good way to keep employees engaged across the generations. Management and leadership skills are the number one learning priority not only for Millennials and Gen X, but also for the Baby Boomer generation still active.9 Focused and personalized leadership development also presents an opportunity to improve diversity in management, and ensures that underrepresented groups advance at the same pace as their colleagues.10
Learning and development (L&D) managers are best positioned within an organization to effectively plan the development of leadership skills in both entry-level and experienced employees. The following six strategies will guide you in implementing leadership development from the ground up:
1. Identify your company's leadership skills gap
While it’s important to provide every employee with the opportunity to develop their knowledge and skills, one cost-effective strategy could be to identify which leadership positions need to be filled immediately, so you can start providing training for those as soon as possible. There are a number of ways to approach this, such as:11
- Using leadership assessment tools coupled with one-on-one interviews for context to find gaps and strengths.
- Identifying measurable business performance deficiencies, and speaking with the leaders associated with these to find out what they need.
- Looking out for regular complaints, and for departments with higher-than-average absenteeism or resignation rates.
- Reviewing your company’s strategy to see if you have the necessary leadership skills to execute it.
- Imagining losing your top executives — do you have people who could fill their shoes?
2. Identify leadership potential
Building a sustainable leadership pipeline requires a commitment to nurturing and developing high-potential employees throughout the organization. Take the time to understand their career goals and personalize their training, which will make them feel that they’re on a clear developmental path, and will in turn increase their engagement in the business.12
The first step to doing so is to identify the employees with leadership potential. Look out for emergent leaders, meaning employees who, rather than being formally assigned a leadership position, naturally assume leadership roles in their teams through their interactions with others. These employees are typically influential, reliable, inspiring, and encourage collaboration.13
And so, when you foster emergent leadership in your organization, you not only enable leaders to rise naturally, but also encourage autonomy, because emergent leadership flows from the capacity to think for yourself, rather than expecting others to tell you what to do. Be careful, however, not to mistake raw charisma for leadership. Not all emergent leaders are extroverts — some may be much less outspoken than others, and L&D managers should be mindful of acknowledging and supporting them too.14
Once you’ve identified high-potential leaders, unlock their talent through appropriate, focused training programs. Executive education courses are valuable for even non-executive employees, and impart valuable business and leadership skills quickly and with a focus on practical application to accelerate their growth within your business.
3. Invest in underrepresented leaders
Diversity in leadership development is a societal issue that requires initiatives targeting groups that have historically been underrepresented on the basis of race, disability, gender, and so forth. Such initiatives can help create a more representative management team, which will in turn attract a more diverse workforce. But developing diverse leaders will require more than HR initiatives or hiring allocations; it will require a reassessment of your organizational culture. Consider these steps:15
4. Develop your managers into leaders
The impact that managers have on employees’, and thus the company’s, performance can’t be overstated. In fact, Gallup found that 70% of the variance in a team’s engagement is due to the quality of their manager.16 However, not all managers have strong, inherent leadership skills, or have been given training to develop these. When you take into account the effect of managers on workforce performance, it makes sense to overinvest in their development — and even more so when you consider that managers offer a pool of potential executive talent by virtue of already being in a leadership position.
A study of hundreds of job roles and competencies established that high-performing managers usually have these leadership capabilities:17
- The capacity to build relationships and trust in sharing ideas and getting things done
- The ability to develop others through clear expectations, encouragement, and coaching
- Aptness at driving change by setting goals and adapting work to align with those goals
- Talent at inspiring and motivating people through vision, confidence, positivity, and recognition
- Critical-thinking skills and the ability to solve problems
- Effective, efficient, and open communication skills
- The capability to hold others and themselves accountable for performance
Providing formal training to develop these skills in your managers is important, but so is mentorship by senior leaders, especially in the early stages of handling new management responsibilities. L&D should create opportunities for collaborative and feedback-based learning by asking managers to provide feedback on challenges and successes in an environment geared toward knowledge sharing and improvement. Such review sessions can be a great learning opportunity for both them and, ultimately, the company at large. It can also be an opportunity for managers to further develop empathy and listening skills, deepen their emotional intelligence, and explore different conflict resolution tactics.18
5. Nurture current leadership with continuous development
In order to guide businesses through an evolving and uncertain business world, leaders need to understand and have the skills to engage with the technological trends driving change, including automation, big data, AI, and machine learning, alongside social ones like sustainability and diversity, equity, and inclusion. But if we expect leaders to adapt continuously to these trends, then it stands to reason that even those currently in leadership roles should engage in continuous personal and professional development.
Slowly but surely, the mindset is shifting away from employee learning as an event, to learning in the flow of work. Increasingly, learning is becoming digital and is happening at work, rather than outside of it.19
One of the key challenges facing leadership development is that there isn’t enough time for leaders to learn and practice the necessary skills, because it takes them away from their responsibilities. Embedding learning in the flow of work is one step towards solving this, but certain competencies are still best taught through courses. Regardless, it’s crucial to give leaders sufficient opportunity for reflection and self-development. This means time for thinking about their behaviors and how these can be changed, and for practicing new skills, which should ideally occur in a sandbox or simulation environment, to build confidence and avoid any costly mistakes.20
6. Lifelong leadership development
An ever-changing technology landscape necessitates constant reskilling and upskilling, which in turn requires a constant focus on learning. The same goes for leadership skills, which leaders - both incumbent and emergent - need to sharpen continuously to keep pace with shifting social trends and workforce expectations.
Successful, long-serving leaders tend to be agile learners, which is why learning agility is a quality business should seek. Hiring managers can identify agile learners by asking questions about how they’ve dealt with challenges and learned from their mistakes, while L&D managers should foster a culture of curiosity and openness, providing on-the-job learning opportunities and stretch assignments that give employees the opportunity to rise to new challenges.21
Developing skills at every level is a priority for all organizations. edX For Business offers a wealth of solutions to help businesses on their journey to growing the leaders that tomorrow’s world requires.
Ready to foster leadership and innovation in every sphere of your business? Learn how edX For Business' innovative learning solutions can help you develop crucial leadership skills at all levels of your organization.
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22021 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends. (2020). Deloitte. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
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4Four Techniques for Developing Your Leadership ‘Muscle’. (2020). Chartered Management Institute. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
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6How to Embrace Organizational Agility. (Nd). ERP Today. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
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10 Why Professional Development Is the Achilles’ Heel of Many DEI Efforts — and 6 Ways to Fix That. (2022). LinkedIn. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
11 14 Smart Ways Executives can Identify Leadership Gaps in Their Company. (2022). Forbes. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
12 Build Your Leadership Pipeline With High-Potential Employees. (Nd). Center for Creative Leadership. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
13 How Emergent Leadership can Help Your Team Thrive. (2022). HubSpot. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
14 Emergent Leadership: The art of Letting Your Team Take the Lead. (2020). Slack. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
15 Retaining & Developing Women Leaders: 5 Steps for Success. (2022). Center for Creative Leadership. Retrieved September 27, 2022.
16 How Influential is a Good Manager? (2021). Gallup. Retrieved September 27, 2022.