Leadership Development is All About Layering

Photo by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird on Unsplash

The challenge of developing leaders can loom as a daunting prospect.

Contributors aren’t prepared to lead others when the opportunity arises, and the cascading effects quickly compound. One reason that might explain the predicament, is an underlying belief that early career experiences and leadership roles are completely distinct entities. In reality, many of the skills required for success at various career levels, overlap and remain critical over time. If we could approach development as a “layered” phenomenon — building core strengths over a longer period of time — we could take a fresh approach to development.

Leadership readiness doesn’t materialize as the result of completing an inflexible, structured development program. Becoming a capable leader is an evolution — a co-mingling of training, coaching, and exposure to the types of challenge that offer the opportunity for both insight and growth.

As discussed in the research of Zenger/Folkman, we have made a habit of unwisely delaying when developing leaders. While we often begin managing others in our 30’s — focused leadership development may not begin in earnest until much later. This creates a precarious skill gap, which can leave an organization both under-powered and unprepared. In fact, we should begin nurturing future leaders much sooner, reinforcing key skills acquired along the way. This would address the “layering” of skills necessary to build a strong potential leader bench. Identifying potential leaders in this manner, has a number of key strategic advantages; the first of which is improved succession planning.

Additional research discussed at HBR, illustrates this layered dynamic quite clearly. Some of the skills required to progress through levels of management, may be more stable than previously considered. While specific skill emphasis may change with level — certain skill sets remain front and center for the long-haul. Thinking strategically, for example, is a perfect case in point as it is often associated with high level leaders. But, as discussed by the researchers, “…there are a set of skills that are critical to you throughout your career. And if you wait until you’re a top manager to develop strategic perspective, it will be too late.”

Testing developing capabilities with techniques such as stretch assignments (aligned with organizational initiatives and coupled with their current role) should also serve as an integral part in development. This offers opportunities test skills on the “open road”. However, within modern organizations, retaining talent longer-term, becomes a critical obstacle. Here, transparency and a mutual exchange agreement become crucial. We should consider making a commitment to those with considerable promise openly — offering the stability they need to hunker down and become emotionally invested.

Here are few other early development topics we could consider:

  • Delegating. Often a sticky subject, delegating confidently demands that we strike a delicate balance between time and control. If we don’t allow others the opportunity to handle the tasks at hand, we risk squelching motivation and our own potential to lead.
  • Persuasive Communication. Becoming an effective communicator remains a core skill set throughout our work lives. This becomes especially critical as we move toward leadership positions.
  • Conflict Management. The capability of facing difficult or uncomfortable challenges, head on — is critical. Developing this skill often takes time and mentored practice to master.
  • Awareness of Functional Links. Organizations are comprised of many moving parts. Becoming keenly aware of the inter-dependencies is a critical skill as we move toward a leadership roles.
  • Alliance Building. Leading is essentially knowing how to collaborate and build positive, lasting bonds with those that around you. If you cannot inspire energy toward a meaningful goal, your leadership “quotient” is limited, at best.
  • Global Awareness. In this day and age, leaders need to consider global reach. Developing a honed industry-wide perspective, is vital to move forward.
  • Idea Management and Intrapreneurship. Team contributors desire opportunities to explore their ideas and spread their wings. Having the ability to identify, evaluate, champion and execute the ideas of the team, is critical.

What are the challenges your organization faces with leader development?

Please note: This post previously appeared at LinkedIn. It was time to share this content here.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist. She is a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. Her thoughts on work life have appeared in various outlets including Talent Zoo, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

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