Even if you already have a top-notch leadership team in place, you’ll want to create a pipeline through which internal leadership talent is developed on an ongoing basis. As existing leaders move on to GM or multiunit opportunities, it’s critical to have other seasoned teammates who can step into the role and provide a steady and seamless leadership presence.
But the transition to leadership is a process that takes time and intention — a process that isn’t frequently measured in leaps and bounds, but by gradual gains and a succession of small wins. Leadership isn’t something that can be cultivated during a one-day seminar or a few weeks’ worth of “training on the job.” It requires a culture that allows employees the time and space to nurture and grow comfortable with their leadership skills as well as make mistakes along the way.
Here are three keys to developing homegrown leadership talent.
1. Carefully identify and assess potential leaders.
Not everyone is cut out for leadership and that’s okay. While some skills can be taught or cultivated in certain candidates, many of the soft skills so often linked to leadership are innate — like an infectious personality or a knack for communication — and simply require the right environment to fully emerge.
So when you’re assessing potential leadership candidates, it’s important to distinguish the difference between managerial and leadership traits. Even though there can be some crossover between the two, managers tend to assume a transactional approach focused on timely task completion for themselves and their crew. But leaders often move beyond task-oriented work with the intention to transform, inspire, and influence their team. It’s a subtle difference, but a critical one in terms of identifying employees who are capable of forward- and progressive-thinking as opposed to a day-to-day mentality.
2. Coach and mentor, don’t train.
When you find an employee who shows promise as a leader and has the necessary interest and drive, the next step is to figure out how best to further develop their talent. Because each person can have such drastically different learning styles, you’ll need to fine-tune the approach and technique for each leadership candidate, but the end result should be the same — coaching and mentoring employees, not just training them.
Training, or literal step-by-step instruction, shouldn’t be the goal for leadership development. And if you think about it, training generally relates to teaching someone how to do a specific task (i.e. inventory rotation) or operate a machine (i.e. point-of-sale system), so people fall back into that transactional mentality.
Coaching and mentoring — the most effective method to cultivate leadership talent — offers support and guidance while encouraging freethinking and self-discovery. This is done, purposefully, in the absence of step-by-step instruction. The leadership mentor-mentee dynamic frequently mimics that of a parent-child. Ultimately, both relationships seek not to create a mini me, an exact replica who does everything to the same specifications as those who came before them. Instead, the hope is to foster individual thought, provide reassurance and advice, and create a safe space where mentee and child can each grow into their unique talents.
3. Regularly evaluate progress.
Just as with any other career transition, sometimes leadership doesn’t work out — even for those candidates who originally showed great potential and had the best of intentions. Again, that’s okay. The benefit of already having a mentorship in place is that you’ll be able to identify these situations quickly during your regular check-ins and communications.
If an employee isn’t satisfied in the role, one of the worst things you can do is force them to continue on. Of course, dig deeper to ensure this isn’t just a case of nerves or self-doubt first. Don’t let a momentary lack of confidence undermine an employee’s promising future.
But do respect those who ultimately make the decision that leadership isn’t for them. First of all, recognize that they are demonstrating strength, initiative, and respect for you and the organization just by simply voicing the decision.
Second, remember the saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” The same applies here. You never, ever want to push people onto — or coerce them to stay on — a leadership pathway when their heart isn’t in it. You can certainly guide and encourage, but know when to let go and gracefully allow them to bow out. Leadership is a lifestyle, personality, and mindset all rolled into one and not solely a job or position, so employees who aren’t “all in” need to be free to find what truly lights that fire.