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4 Strategies for Building Your Leadership Pipeline

Earlier this year, I was working with an executive who had all the characteristics of a great leader; high emotional intelligence, an engaged team, an approachable leadership style, and great results. There was one thing missing: he didn’t have a successor. Although his team members met or exceeded expectations in their current roles, not one of them was prepared to move into a senior leadership role. This was a concern for the organization, as the CEO realized he had several executives nearing retirement, yet didn’t have the talent in the pipeline to fill these high-level leadership roles.

This isn’t uncommon; many leaders focus on personal development and don’t always see the immediate need for developing a successor. Perhaps you’ve been through leadership training, you listen to personal development podcasts and read leadership books; you are self aware and work to develop your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. You are always looking to improve; reading trade magazines, and attending webinars, conferences, and industry events. You may even spend time coaching your employees to perform their best in their current roles.

Personal development and applying what you learn has a significant impact on your success as a leader. Yet many executives and managers are so focused on self-improvement, that they sometimes forget an important piece of successful leadership: developing the bench strength a level below them and preparing mid-managers for executive level roles.

No matter how effective you may be at leading and getting results, you will never be a highly successful leader if you do not have a plan for your succession. Not every employee is capable of moving beyond their current role, but as a leader you have to assess each individual on your current team and create a plan to develop or hire the talent you will need in your pipeline for the future.

Below are four strategies for developing your leadership pipeline:

Assess your bench strength. For each individual on your team, create a simple assessment of how he or she performs in the current role. What are her strengths? Weaknesses? Does she have leadership potential? Has she fully developed the competencies of her current role? Are there any gaps? When you review the competencies of a future management or executive role, how does she measure up? What competencies and skills can you start to develop in her to prepare her for the future role? Assess each of your employees so you can understand their individual strengths and weaknesses, how they are currently performing, and who has demonstrated leadership potential.

Identify high potentials. Once you have completed the individual assessments, identify any high potential employees who stand out. If you left your position today, who might be ready to move into your role? If there is no natural successor, who has the potential to develop into the role over the next three to five years? If no current employees have leadership potential, how will you handle that? For example, if an employee on your team leaves, perhaps you focus on hiring a new employee with executive leadership potential whom you can groom for your role. Create a snapshot of the current performance and potential future performance for each of your employees, and identify potential successors.

Create individual development plans. Once you have identified high-potential employees, create an individual development plan for each one. Ideally you will have several employees who have the potential to succeed your position. But even if you have just one, determine what competencies, skills or knowledge the employee will need to be successful in a leadership role. Then find opportunities that will develop this employee or expose him to the needed skills. This could be education, like conferences and leadership schools, or internal opportunities like managing a high level project. Earlier in my career as a director of human resources, my vice president had me present a strategic initiative to the Board of Directors. Although I was nervous to interact with the Board, my VP explained that getting exposure to the Board at the director level was to prepare me for eventually taking over the vice president role. A year later, when my VP moved out of state, I was promoted to vice president with the support of the Board. Find opportunities that will challenge and prepare your high-potentials for leadership roles.

Involve the employee. When you have identified your high potential employees, share with them that they are considered high-potential. Not only is this a great engagement tool (employees want to be developed and have the opportunity to reach their potential), but it also allows them to be engaged in the process. Involve your employee by asking her questions to facilitate the development: Is she interested in eventually moving into a leadership role? What skills does she feel she needs to develop in? What would her strengths be in that role, and how can she leverage them? What projects or initiatives would she like to lead in the organization to prepare? Development is a two-way street. It takes time and commitment from you to coach and mentor, as well as from your employee to take initiative and ownership of her development.

Even if you plan to stay in your current role indefinitely, exceptional leaders develop and prepare high-potential employees for future leadership roles. When you understand each employee’s professional goals and work to develop them to their potential, you are creating your leadership legacy.

I’d love to hear how you are preparing your high-potentials. What is one thing you are doing to build your leadership pipeline? Share your comments below!