Facebook, Microsoft, KFC, GE, Apple — all big and successful organizations have one thing in common — a visionary leader who either built them from the ground up or helped put them on the map.
A leader’s vision, direction, and ability to rally and inspire teams means the difference between a company that merely survives and one that truly thrives. Leaders are the linchpins that hold the fabric of an organization together, driving it forward in times of challenge and prosperity alike.
So where do these leaders come from? And should we wait for such leaders to come along and change our fortunes? Or should we set out to find them and develop them?
While the answer is obvious, developing leaders is easier said than done. You need dedicated resources, a well thought-out leadership development program, and appropriate metrics to measure its effectiveness. Let’s first look into why leadership development is worth the investment.
Benefits of developing leaders
Leadership development is a strategic investment that pays dividends in the form of organizational growth, employee satisfaction, and long-term stability. Developing leaders ensures that organizations are resilient, forward-looking, and equipped to handle both current challenges and future opportunities. Here are some of the primary reasons why developing leaders is essential:
- Having capable leaders puts you on a trajectory towards continual growth and long-term success.
- Better leadership leads to higher employee retention and engagement. Engaged employees are more productive and contribute positively to the company culture.
- Strong leaders who promote a positive culture significantly influence employee satisfaction, collaboration, and overall performance.
- Developing leaders leads to smoother transition of leadership roles and greater organizational stability even as senior leaders retire or move on.
- Organizations with strong leaders are better equipped to differentiate themselves in the market, respond to challenges, and seize opportunities.
In addition to the above advantages, having a pool of internal talent ready to step up into leadership roles reduces costs associated with external recruitment, onboarding, and training.
10 Leadership development strategies
Each of the following strategies, when implemented effectively, help cultivate a strong lineup of competent and visionary leaders.
1. Recognize leadership potential early
By identifying potential leaders at the outset, you set yourself up for targeted development, ensuring a steady pipeline of leadership talent.
Successful organizations spot potential leaders long before they're in leadership roles. By identifying these individuals early, organizations can provide them with the necessary training and opportunities to develop their skills and grow into leadership roles.
Companies like Procter & Gamble are known for their ability to identify and nurture leadership talent from the early stages of an employee's career, leading to a robust internal leadership pipeline. Some companies, such as Goldman Sachs, even take the extra step of scouting talent early, often from graduate programs, molding them into future leaders through rigorous training and exposure.
Here’s what you can do to recognize leaders early:
- Use talent assessment tools and leadership potential indicators during the hiring and evaluation processes to identify emerging leaders in your ranks. Tools like the Predictive Index, Hogan Assessments, or Gallup's StrengthsFinder identify traits commonly found in leaders, such as decisiveness, adaptability, and strategic thinking.
- Encourage feedback from team members about who they see as emergent leaders. Use regular team feedback sessions or anonymous feedback platforms to gather this information.
2. Invest in mentorship programs
Mentorship provides guidance, exposes mentees to leadership thinking, and accelerates their growth trajectory. Leaders aren't just born, they're made. And often, they're made through the guidance and wisdom of others. Mentorship programs offer aspiring leaders the chance to learn from those who've been there, done that.
Companies like General Electric use mentorship programs to develop their leaders. Many of the company’s top executives attribute their success to early mentoring.
To create future leaders in your organization:
- Implement structured mentoring programs, pairing experienced leaders with emerging ones, and ensure regular touchpoints for knowledge sharing.
- Instead of leaving mentorship pairings to chance, implement a system where mentors and mentees are matched based on specific criteria like career goals, skill sets, or areas of interest.
- Offer training sessions to potential mentors to equip them with the skills and knowledge they need to guide, support, and provide constructive feedback to their mentees.
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3. Strengthen soft skills
Soft skills like communication, emotional intelligence, and adaptability are vital for effective leadership. Think of Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO. He attributes his leadership success partly to cultivating empathy, a vital soft skill.
To make sure your leaders have soft skills:
- Add soft skills training to your leadership development programs, leveraging workshops, role-playing, and external courses.
- Focus on specific soft skills such as communication, emotional intelligence, or conflict resolution. IBM offers a number of courses relevant to these skills.
- Assign team members to work on projects outside their usual departments or roles to broaden their understanding of the organization. This will also help them develop soft skills like adaptability, collaboration, and communication.
4. Foster self-reflection
Leaders who introspect are better positioned to understand their strengths, areas for growth, and make informed decisions. Media mogul Oprah Winfrey has consistently spoken about the value of introspection and self-awareness in her leadership journey.
To encourage self-reflection and introspection in your organization, do the following:
- Introduce tools such as self-assessment questionnaires or reflective journals that leaders can use to evaluate their actions, decisions, and behaviors. Encourage them to set aside dedicated time weekly or monthly to fill these out, analyzing where they excelled and where there's room for improvement.
- Organize sessions where team members can provide constructive feedback to each other in a safe and structured environment. Upward feedback gives leaders insight into how they're perceived, helping them identify areas of growth they might have overlooked on their own. Pair this with guidance on how to process and act on the feedback received.
5. Understand and nurture career aspirations
Aligning leadership development with individual career goals ensures personal investment and motivation. That’s why leading tech companies like Apple have rotation programs that allow employees to shift roles and departments. This helps them find where they fit best and where they can lead most effectively.
To understand your potential leaders’ career aspirations:
- Conduct individual meetings with potential leaders to delve into their long-term career goals and aspirations.
- Once you understand where a potential leader wants to go in their career, provide them with the necessary training and resources.
- Pair potential leaders with mentors who have experience in the areas they're interested in. These mentors should provide guidance, share their own experiences, and offer insights into specific career paths.
6. Provide regular feedback and constructive criticism
Consistent, constructive feedback helps mold effective leaders. Google is known for its culture of feedback. Their performance review system makes sure that everyone, from interns to top-level executives, knows their strengths and areas of improvement.
Most organizations already have feedback systems in place. To use it in the context of leadership development, take the following steps:
- Instead of waiting for annual reviews, set up frequent feedback touchpoints – monthly or quarterly. Regular check-ins ensure timely course corrections and allow potential leaders to adjust and improve continuously. Moreover, using these sessions to celebrate small successes can boost morale and further drive leadership development.
- Introduce a comprehensive feedback mechanism where potential leaders receive evaluations not just from their superiors, but also from peers, subordinates, and even external stakeholders. This all-encompassing feedback provides a holistic view of their strengths and areas for improvement, offering insights from multiple perspectives.
7. Encourage networking and building relationships
Networking broadens a leader's perspective, opens doors to new opportunities, and fosters collaboration. Sheryl Sandberg, former COO of Facebook, emphasizes the importance of networking in leadership and career growth in her book ‘Lean In’. She suggests that while merit plays a role in career progression, the networks individuals cultivate significantly influence opportunities.
Take the following steps to encourage potential leaders in your organization to build networks and relationships:
- Set up regular cross-functional meetings or "lunch-and-learns" so potential leaders can network outside of their immediate team.
- Enroll emerging leaders in relevant professional associations and encourage them to attend industry conferences.
- Advise leaders-in-the-making to regularly check in with their contacts, share useful resources or insights on LinkedIn, and offer assistance when feasible.
8. Give potential leaders hands-on leadership opportunities
Real-world leadership challenges are unparalleled in grooming future leaders. PepsiCo, for example, assigns potential leaders to challenging projects, giving them a taste of leadership challenges and decision-making.
Giving hands-on leadership experience to people who are not yet in leadership roles can be challenging though, but the following ideas will help:
- Introduce potential leaders to projects that push them slightly out of their comfort zones. This could involve leading a cross-functional team, overseeing a high-stakes project, or even a short-term assignment in a different department or region.
- Implement a rotational program where emerging leaders experience different roles within the organization.
- Whenever there's a critical challenge or an unexpected obstacle, involve potential leaders in the brainstorming and resolution process.
9. Promote continuous learning
Continuous learning ensures leaders remain updated and adaptable. We have entered an interesting era in human history where generative AI and bots have taken over repetitive tasks at the workplace, and everyone needs to reskill as big chunks of their daily tasks are automated. That’s why companies like Amazon promote a culture of continuous learning, offering their employees opportunities like the Career Choice Program to develop new skills.
- Integrate a Learning Management System (LMS) within your organization (if you haven’t already). Encourage leaders to take courses that hone their existing skills and introduce them to new leadership trends and methodologies.
- Establish monthly or quarterly "knowledge exchange" sessions where team members or external experts present on recent findings, innovative strategies, or new tools they've encountered.
- Recognize that each leader's learning journey is unique. Work with them to identify areas they wish to improve on or new skills they want to acquire. Set clear, measurable milestones and provide resources such as courses and mentorship to help them reach these goals.
10. Create a supportive environment
A nurturing, supportive environment can make all the difference in developing great leaders. Leaders need to feel safe to take risks, innovate, and sometimes, fail. The SAS Institute is a good example of such an environment. It stands out for its focus on employee well-being, creating an environment where leaders feel supported and motivated. 94% of its employees say it’s a great place to work — the industry average is 57%.
- Create an environment where potential leaders feel safe to express ideas, ask questions, admit mistakes, and provide feedback without fear of retribution. This can be achieved by leaders modeling this behavior themselves, actively soliciting feedback, and addressing concerns without placing blame.
- Recognize and commend the small milestones and achievements of potential leaders. This not only boosts their morale but also reinforces the importance of continuous development.
- When mistakes are made, instead of penalizing, use them as learning experiences. Discuss what went wrong, how it can be prevented in the future, and what lessons can be drawn from the situation.
How to build a leadership pipeline
The 10 leadership development strategies we discussed will help you identify and develop potential leaders for your organization. But, not all organizations will be able to apply all 10 strategies together. So it’s important for you to have a system in place to build a leadership pipeline. Here’s how it works:
1. Identify potential leaders
Spot individuals displaying leadership traits early in their journey. They’re the ones who exhibit a keen understanding of business, bring fresh perspectives, and often go beyond their designated roles.
Also, organize talent hunts, competitions, and activities that help surface hidden leadership qualities among the employees. Recognize and reward such talented individuals to boost morale and set examples.
2. Implement leadership training and mentoring programs
Once you have identified someone to be a potential leader, enroll them in leadership training programs. Use workshops, cross-functional exposure, and mentoring to equip them with skills for the next level.
3. Give them more responsibilities
Give incremental responsibilities to your potential leaders to truly test and refine their leadership skills. This ensures they don’t just have theoretical knowledge but also practical experience in handling larger teams and more complex projects.
4. Evaluate their performance
Regular assessments, feedback sessions, and reviews help potential leaders understand their strengths and areas of improvement. Create a feedback loop to refine their leadership style.
In addition to you giving feedback to future leaders, make sure they can give feedback to you too. Encourage a culture where questions, ideas, and feedback flow freely. Potential leaders should feel comfortable challenging the status quo, coming up with innovations, and driving change. This open culture not only fosters leadership but also innovation and growth.
5. Create a succession plan
Leaders are developed not just for the next immediate role but for various positions up the hierarchy. Chalk out a clear roadmap, factoring in the aspirations of the individual and the needs of the organization.
6. Plan for continuous improvement
Leadership development is not a one-time task. It's an ongoing process. Plan regular upskilling sessions and advanced training to make sure leaders are in sync with industry shifts and organizational changes.
How to measure the impact of leadership development
Organizations invest considerable time, effort, and resources into leadership development, that’s why it is important to measure the return on that investment (ROI). Effective ROI measurement is more than just assessing the satisfaction of participants post-training, it's about understanding the tangible and intangible impacts on the business through concrete metrics and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).
Here are some metrics and KPIs you can use to measure the impact of your leadership development activities:
- Leadership retention rates — Track the retention rates of participants in leadership development programs versus non-participants or those in previous years. If you are retaining your current and potential leaders, your leadership development program is working.
- Feedback from direct reports — Implement anonymous feedback systems or 360-degree reviews to gain insights into how well new leadership skills are being applied.
- Time to promotion — Monitor the average time it takes for participants to be promoted compared to non-participants. The participants of your leadership development program should be getting promoted faster if your development programs are effective.
- Business outcomes — Correlate leadership training timelines with shifts in business metrics. An uptick in these metrics post-training can signify the program's effectiveness.
- Net Promoter Score (NPS) for your program — Post-program surveys asking participants how likely they are to recommend the program on a scale of 1-10. High scores indicate program satisfaction.
- Succession planning success — Track how many leadership vacancies are filled internally by participants of the program versus external hires.
- Cost-benefit analysis — Compare the program's costs (training, resources, time) against the tangible and intangible benefits (increased productivity, improved employee morale, reduced turnover).
The above KPIs should provide you a clear picture of the program's effectiveness, enabling you to refine your strategies based on the results.
Ready to develop your leaders? Let’s talk!
At the heart of every thriving organization is a core of empowered and visionary leaders. With a systemic approach to leadership development, you will be able to identify and prepare such leaders within your organization.
Now, if you're wondering about the "how" and the tools to make this happen, let’s introduce you to Together. As a mentoring platform, Together is designed with leadership development at its core. It's not just about finding and training leaders, it's about continuously nurturing and growing them in an environment that’s both supportive and challenging. Our platform ensures that the journey of leadership development is structured, measurable, and, most importantly, effective.
So, are you committed to setting your organization on a path of unparalleled growth through top-tier leadership? Let’s start a conversation. Dive into the world of leadership development with Together by your side and let us help you meet and exceed those leadership goals.