how to build a leadership pipeline on your team

If you don’t have a leadership pipeline in place to develop talent internally, you’ll probably need to spend a lot of time searching for good outside talent when vacancies open up on your team – and you may find yourself in a situation where you can’t easily take on new challenges yourself because there’s no one to take on your current responsibilities. But if you invest the time to build a leadership pipeline on your team, you’ll have a ready supply of talent when new leadership opportunities open up – and you’ll likely have an easier time holding on your to performers, because you’ll be creating a clearer career ladder for them.

Interested in building a leadership pipeline on your team? Here’s how.

1. Look for people on your team with leadership potential. A few traits to keep your eye out for are:

  • Intense determination to get results, including persistence in the face of roadblocks, willingness to make hard decisions, and a desire to continuously learn and improve.
  • Interpersonal and communication skills that will help them to influence others and build trust.
  • The ability to see the big picture and to navigate the forest without getting distracted by the trees.

2. Give people structured and deliberate leadership experience in low-risk contexts. For example, you might have the person lead a meeting or a project, manage an intern, train a new employee, or teach something to others on the team. In doing this…

3. Coach and develop their leadership skills. Don’t just give people leadership responsibilities and leave them to it. Instead, spend time talking through challenges and possible approaches and giving advice. Tell them what you’ve learned and why you approach things certain ways, and help them to use you as a resource. And make sure to debrief afterwards, to help them process what they’re learned and carry lessons forward.

4. Give them an inside look at your own management role. One of the most powerful things you can do when grooming someone for leadership is to model effective management yourself, and to talk explicitly about what you’re doing and why. For example, you might invite the person to sit in while you conduct an important meeting or a job interview, and then talk afterwards about why you handled a tricky issue the way you did or what was in your head when topic X came up. Similarly, consider talking with the person about dilemmas you’re facing in your own job: the options you’re considering, the factors you need to take into consideration, what you’re leaning toward deciding, and why. Ask for their take on specific dilemmas, and bat around their ideas with them. This can be hugely helpful in honing their own instincts.

5. Be okay with people struggling a bit. It’s important to remember that leadership skills may be quite different from the skills the person has used up until this point. Don’t assume that just because someone is, for example, an excellent salesperson that she’ll naturally excel at teaching people to sell; that’s where your coaching will come in and why it’s so important to stay engaged as your staff person takes on these new responsibilities. Because your staff person will be tackling whole new challenges, things likely won’t go entirely smoothly, and you’ll need to be comfortable with people making mistakes (which is why letting people practice in low-stakes contexts can be so helpful).

{ 20 comments… read them below }

  1. hermit crab*

    And don’t forget the fundamental building block of all this: being able to hire junior staff so that the pipeline can begin in the first place. I’m a situation where I have fantastic, supportive managers who keep giving me great new opportunities. But, in addition, I still have to do a lot of the tasks that naturally fall to the most junior person on a team, because we haven’t hired anyone to step into that role as I step out of it.

    1. Ama*

      This is an excellent point. At my last job, my boss really wanted to see herself as facilitating my climb up the ladder, but like you, every new opportunity just got piled on to most of my current tasks because the big bosses resisted either the creation of a new position for me to move into or a new entry level position to take on my lower level tasks — they just expected me to do two jobs at once.

      At my current job my boss has approved giving more hours and more of my time intensive tasks to a freelance employee, as well as establishing me as her official supervisor. She’s told me this is not just because she wants me to focus on the higher level/big picture parts of my job, but to give me practice so I am prepared to move into a more senior managerial role where I would have a full time report or reports.

  2. Regina 2*

    This is great. I wish more managers did this.

    I am convinced I am not management material, but since most every manager has told me they see it in my future, I wish they would have done any one of these things on the list (ALL would have been ideal). Part of my belief I’m not cut out for it is that I find it completely nebulous to me. You want me to learn a system and get a project done by X date? No problem. But the core of being a leader — seeing the big picture, anticipating, and steering a team — is so beyond my realm of understanding. I want to see an example and understand why a manager made their decision. I am not a natural leader, so to do it, I’d have to see countless examples and practice.

    I think even with all this, I would not cut it, but I would like the learning opportunity to understand it better.

    1. JC*

      Those are great examples. I am a brand new manager, and those are the things I don’t have the instinct for right now and know I will have a steep learning curve with. But! Just because you don’t have an instinct for those things doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be a leader in your organization some day. It just means that learning those things will be a challenge, and hopefully an interesting challenge. Every potential leader has something that doesn’t come naturally to them.

  3. Chinook*

    I am trying hard with my volunteer group to “grow our own” so that it isn’t always the same people volunteering to be in charge and have been trying to do all of your points. But how do you handle #5 when those with more experience don’t let the newbies flounder a little (especially without alienating the old hands who want everything to be perfect and don’t understand that people often learn from mistakes and near misses)? I have tried to reinforce the idea with a lessons learned debriefing/report but any tips on how to force others to give people room to flounder?

    1. Regina 2*

      Is there something the old-timers can also be pushed on, so even if it’s a different task, everyone is experiencing floundering/growing at the same time?

    2. neverjaunty*

      Mistakes and near misses are not the only way people learn. Giving people room to make mistakes and follow-up debriefing are wonderful practices – but isn’t it better to teach the young’uns directly, rather than having them learn through screwing up?

      1. Chinook*

        I agree that you don’t need to make mistakes to learn, but my problem is often that the newbies sometimes use different techniques to accomplish the same goals (including some new technology that causes pearl clutching among some older members while others sigh *finally*). That means what looks like imminent failure to one person is actually a project working working with a different timeline to the person in charge and the person who sees failure jumps in thinking they have to save the day when they really don’t.

        We do have written procedures and past plans that are handed down via physical binders but too often it is hard for new leadership to try something new because it is different from what we always did. Add to that an feeling of not wanting to step on anyone’s toes and wanting to show respect for those who did it to before us, and it doesn’t surprise me that no one my age or younger wants to step up (plus, because it is a church group, it is not something we can easily put on a resume vs running the local soccer association)

      2. Mike B.*

        Rita Rudner said once “I hate learning through experience. Just once I would like to learn something because someone was nice enough to tell me in advance.”

        Doesn’t work as well though. :-)

    3. Brett*

      Make developing leadership an explicit part of your strategic plan, on equal level with achieving perfect accomplishments. This can open up a hard discussion on tactics that should include everything Alison has mentioned, b particularly the tactic of developing low stakes contexts where people can practice and develop their leadership without expectations of perfection.
      The old hands can still have higher stakes areas where they can do their work on equal footing with the leadership development.
      But I think the first step is emphasizing leadership development as a key strategy.
      (And if you don’t have a strategic plan, do one. They are not that difficult and can help everyone be more invested in your group if they get input into the plan.)

      1. Chinook*

        A strategic plan is really what I wished I had thought of at the beginning of my two year term. Atleast we came up with goals for 2016 which includes encouraging leadership along the lines AAM recommends (along with restarting phone trees because Catholics can ignore emails guilt free but it turns out won’t say no to you over the phone).

  4. Stranger than fiction*

    I just went down the list and we have only 9 managers out of 52 employees. So while I understand there may never be an opportunity for me unless someone retires or gets hit by a bus, still it’s nice to have the chance to learn and practice some of this in case one of those things does happen. It’s like they don’t have any contingency in place and it really bothers me sometimes. Yeah they could bring in someone from the outside but why when you have ready willing and able bodied right under your nose? (And I do have some supervisory experience but it was over ten years ago so I’m well aware I’d need some leadership training)

  5. Temperance*

    I’m on a two-person team, so there’s nowhere for me to go. (I did get a title change after my first year, which was unexpected and very appreciated).

    Any tips on how to navigate this? I’ve been handling more projects etc., but there’s nowhere for me to go, if that makes sense.

    1. LQ*

      I think it depends on what you want. I was at a 2 person org for a long time. I kept getting more projects, I was able to shift the direction of the projects and programs, I took on grant writing, I took on a bunch of things and we shifted away from some, I automated some, and I managed a few interns who did some of the tasks I had when I started. It was great.

      I wasn’t moving up but my skills were growing. If I wanted to go into management I would have had to go elsewhere. (I had to go elsewhere anyway.) But in a small program, you might/will likely have to leave to advance.

    2. The Expendable Redshirt*

      I am my department. The program has one staff running things. Me! If I want to try something new, or focus more on a certain area, then I just do it. (Keeping my supervisor in the loop of course).

      Are there other projects that you want to try? An area that needs improvement? A certification that would be useful for your role?

  6. neverjaunty*

    This was a very helpful column; I’d love to see a follow-up on what NOT to do in finding and encouraging people into leadership.

  7. Msquared*

    I think an important piece is convincing key decision makers in your organization to do this in the first place. In my last position, I had someone who sincerely wanted to move up – and had 5+ uears of experience with us to boot – but my ED said absolutely not. Why? Because this person didn’t have an advanced degree. Quite honestly (saying this as someone with an advanced degree in this field), it’s really not much more than a piece of paper. But my ED believed in advanced degrees to a huge extent, and so we were constantly bringing in people from the outside to fill eladership positions.

    It was terribly demoralizing, because the entry-level people were basically told that there was no hope for a better position and better pay unless they invested 2 years and tens of thousands of dollars for a grad program. – no matter what their accomplishments were or their dedication to the organization.

  8. Mark in Cali*

    How about, “don’t come in every day acting like you have a million fires to put out but won’t delegate anything to anyone on top of trying to do parts of everyone’s job because you always look overstressed and busy, and in no way, shape, or form does that make me want to become a leader at this company.”

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