The pivotal experiences that emerging leaders need

Katherine Alexander, an organisational psychologist from the Canadian company Kilberry Leadership Advisors, recently published a report entitled High Potential Leadership.

In it, she argued that if emerging leaders are to realise their full potential, they need six key opportunities.

emerging leadersThese are:

  1. Visibility: The opportunity to become well-known within their company. Having a high-profile helps to develop an emerging leader’s presence and facilitates network-building.
  1. Insight: The opportunity to learn and practice constructive self-reflection. Research from Harvard Business School has found that reflecting on an experience makes that experience more productive: it helps an individual to articulate what they have gained from the experience, which embeds the learning and it builds their confidence about acting effectively in the future.
  1. Peer exchange: The opportunity to work with – and learn from – other high-calibre individuals, particularly other emerging leaders. This develops networks and allows emerging leaders to learn from the experiences of their peers, as well as from their own experiences.
  1. Opportunities to add strategic value: Emerging leaders need opportunities to work on critical projects. This challenges them to work at leadership level: they have to think and act proactively and flexibly.
  1. Focused learning: This is the opportunity to gain knowledge critical to the company and the wider industry. It’s particularly important for emerging leaders to gain technical and financial knowledge.
  1. Experimentation: To grow into leadership, individuals with potential need opportunities to practice leadership: to experiment with different approaches and techniques and to allow themselves the room to fail – if, in failing, they learn from their mistakes.

At the heart of this approach is experiential learning, which is a key part of developing leaders. Research from UCL, published in 2006, showed that when we experience something new, it improves our ability to learn and to retain information. We retain, or anchor learning more, when we’re facing the challenge of a novel experience rather than just have repeated exposure to facts (as can occur in traditional classroom-based learning). Alexander also argues for a range of experiential approaches: peer-to-peer development; targeted knowledge acquisition and contained leadership opportunities (in the shape of critical but discrete projects).

This broad mix allows for leadership skills to be developed in conjunction with other useful attributes: building key relationships throughout the company, developing vital technical abilities and gaining a broad overview of the industry. It also provides opportunities to ‘learn-by-watching’ as well as opportunities to ‘learn-by-doing’

Put theory into practice

For companies that are committed to developing a leadership pipeline, it’s important to address these six areas of development and to create a program of opportunity for emerging leaders. Remember: these opportunities will not necessarily arise of their own accord.

In addition, it’s vital that companies forward-plan for their emerging leaders. Think about the roles you wish your high-potential employees to take on in 18 months’ time. Assess the skills, behaviours and technical capabilities they will need to be successful in these roles. Then put in place a targeted development plan to prepare them for this. This should be done with their input: so they know the role you want them to take on, why you feel it will benefit them and the company to take on this role and what they need to be able to do to succeed within the role. The benefits of this approach are three-fold:

  1. It builds loyalty, as you are demonstrating that you believe in, and wish to invest in, the individual.
  1. This level of forward-planning helps to future-proof the company, because it focuses attention on what the company needs to succeed in the future.
  1. It provides a framework in which emerging leaders can succeed. When someone knows what’s expected of them and what they need to learn in order to move forward, they are targeted in their behavior. This gives them the best possible chance of success.

Emerging leaders grow as a result of the experiences they have. To create an effective leadership pipeline, combine the challenge and stretch of experience, with a targeted framework of development.

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