Leadership development: how organisations can provide breadth of experience to high potential employees

leadership development training
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Developing high potential employees into the leaders of tomorrow hinges on being able to provide them with the right learning experiences to ensure they’re ready for the challenges at the top.

Breadth of experience is the foundation for progression to senior roles. Only if a promising employee has worked through a variety of different organisational challenges will they be able to deal effectively with the scale and complexity of a leadership role.

It allows an emerging leader to gain a myriad of benefits, including an organisation-wide view, flexible leadership and problem-solving styles and the ability to get up to speed fast in a new environment.

Navigating choppy waters

Breadth of experience has always been important for senior leaders, but it’s even more critical now that leaders must navigate organisations through the choppy waters of technological disruption, increased global complexity and volatility.

It also has benefits for employees who don’t want to move to senior roles. As jobs and organisations continually evolve, simply wanting to stay in the same role requires ongoing development - otherwise there is a danger that our jobs will outgrow us.

Key developmental experiences for acceleration

Some experiences seem to be more developmental than others as they provide certain challenges that lend themselves to gaining and fine-tuning leadership capabilities. It is important to define experiences and not roles when deciding what critical job assignment or projects a high potential employee should take on.

Extensive research has shown that the key developmental experiences for high potential employees are:

  • Operational delivery: this often includes responsibility for ‘a number’ such as productivity, churn rate, customer satisfaction ratings, revenue, or other financial accountabilities. What constitutes an operational role depends on the organisation. For an automotive company, operational experience can be gained in the manufacturing facilities, for example, whereas it may be a call-centre for a mobile phone company or the IT back-office function for a bank.
     
  • Starting something from scratch: intrapreneurial activity is important for organisational innovation and growth. Learning how to set up a new team and getting it to work together effectively or creating a new product line and generating a strong revenue stream from it, allows an emerging leader to hone a wide range of leadership skills, including visioning and strategic thinking, influencing and driving results. Starting something from scratch is not only about blue-sky ideas - it’s about turning these ideas into profit.
     
  • Turnaround: no organisation can survive without the ability to fix problems such as under-performing teams, failing business units or faulty products. Turnaround projects often require drastic and urgent action and teach an emerging leader how to operate successfully under pressure in high-stakes situations.

Breadth of experience can be attained either through formal rotation programmes and secondments, or less formal temporary assignments and projects that are taken on in addition to the emerging leader’s day job.

  • Change management: organisations must continually realign their processes, culture and direction in response to both internal and external changes. This makes effective change management a vital leadership experience. Learning about what it takes to get people to overcome resistance to change and adopt a new direction is a vital skill for high-potential employees.
     
  • Global remit: working abroad is one of the most formative experiences as it takes an emerging leader out of their comfort zone completely and challenges commonly held beliefs. International assignments are often the one assignment that is mentioned by business leaders even when no other experiences have been formally identified as core requirements for senior leaders. This is not surprising given the global nature of most organisations.
     
  • People management: as leaders become more senior, the remit of their roles increase significantly. It is no longer to deliver against all expectations alone and knowing how to build, develop and motivate other people to work towards the same goals is a vital leadership skill.

Honing capabilities for success

Other experiences that provide valuable leadership lessons are strategic projects, generating growth, working in a different function or environment or dealing with broad roles that include a wide range of different responsibilities.

All these roles provide vital learning for high-potential leaders and add value to their development irrespective of industry sector, function or business cycle the leader finds themselves in.

These experiences will allow a leader to hone the leadership capabilities that are required for success in the VUCA world: learning agility, flexibility in leadership style and the readiness to question one’s assumptions, innovation, influencing and business-wide perspectives for decision-making in a volatile business world.

Not every leader will go through every single one of these experiences and their ordering may vary. However, every leader is likely to go through a significant number on the way to the top as part of filling blank spaces on their CV.

Breadth of experience can be attained either through formal rotation programmes and secondments, or less formal temporary assignments and projects that are taken on in addition to the emerging leader’s day job.

As organisations are unable to offer a formal rotation programme to every employee, it pays to put in place career infrastructure that helps high potential employees secure access to their own developmental leadership experiences.

This includes, among other things, clearly stating the leadership experiences that are valued by the organisation and expected of senior leaders, making cross-functional moves easy, and posting all available roles internally.

Want to learn more about training employees into leadership? Read Soft skills: preparing the leaders of tomorrow.

About Ines Wichert

Dr Ines Wicherts

Dr Ines Wichert is an Occupational Psychologist and a managing director at TalUpp, the leadership development consultancy. She works with organisations and individuals to develop talent and build high-performance teams. Her new book Accelerated Leadership Development – How to Turn your Top Talent into Leaders (Kogan Page) is out now. 

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