Racing to the Top: Developing Emerging Leaders
Who is an emerging leader?
Based on recent interviews I conducted with C-Suite and emerging leaders, the answer to this question for some was, “You know one when you see one”. For others, particularly C-Suite executives committed to achieving diversity at all levels of leadership, there are very clear criteria, even though these may vary from executive to executive in the same corporation. The undercurrent of all of the responses I received was that emerging leaders are not yet at the top, but have the potential to get there sooner and faster than others.
But how do you know one when you see one?
Simply put, it is someone with strong upward potential, with at least two levels higher potential advancement – even possibly to a future key C Suite role – at a much faster pace than normally seen in the corporation. From decades of talent development experience, we at Innovara have evolved 4 key criteria to help you identify emerging leaders:
- Emerging leaders demonstrate deep expertise and skill in their main field. They demonstrate this ability earlier rather than later in their careers, proactively volunteering to work on projects where their expertise will add value, while giving them an opportunity to build cross-functional experience and build networks of support across the organization.
- Emerging leaders earn the respect of others without necessarily having authority over the group. For example, if they not already responsible for leading the team, they are first to take responsibility to help make the project successful. One can observe how they often become a de facto leader, and how often others look to them for help, direction, and other feedback.
- Emerging leaders create followership particularly around major new corporate initiatives or significant business challenges. Even if they lack sufficient experience, emerging leaders are still willing to take that leap with confidence that they can learn what they need along the way. They show a commitment to self-development along with willingness to seek help and advice from others with more experience. Moreover, when teams are forming around new initiatives and challenges, others want to join the team that this emerging leader is in or will lead.
- Emerging leaders have a miles-to-go mindset in terms of their own future potential impact. Being an emerging leader is not about age. It is about showing forward thinking. This also requires a recognition that future success will needthe further support of others above and around them. Most importantly, they are willing – even eager – to commit to important longer-term projects that will have major impact on the organization.
Once you have identified an emerging leader, how should you as a senior leader foster and support them?
- Be a sponsor, more than a mentor. Sponsors are out front and center, whereas mentors are behind the scenes. Emerging leaders need sponsors who will step forward in a room full of executives and say, “We should consider Sarah for that position! She has always demonstrated her ability to rise to any challenge we give her, and she is highly regarded by her peers. Let’s give her this opportunity to gain more experience with others across the organization.” With a sponsor in the room who is advocating for her, Sarah has now entered the consideration set for an advancement opportunity.
- Foster early opportunities for development. Job rotations and alternative career pathways are great ways to achieve this. Assign rising stars early in their careers to project teams where they have the opportunity to make a significant contribution, even while learning in the process.
- Don’t throw them in the deep end and expect them to immediately become Olympians. Yes, give them challenges, but also provide multiple successful leaders to mentor, coach and give them feedback as required for the specific project they are assigned to. Ease them into management, early in their careers. Create opportunities to have subordinates or interns sooner, rather than later.
- Let them rise and shine (and stumble) to rise again. Don’t hold them back, let them take the reins, to run fast and hard knowing that there will be bumps in that road. When they succeed, recognize these champions for their direct contribution to the win. When they fail or struggle, ensure that the emerging leader learns from that experience for the future, and get them back into the next race.
- Plan for parity in every decision-making level of management. Women make up about 1 in 5 executive leadership roles, but very few of those roles run the operations or make the hard decisions that impact the financial performance of the firm. To move the company towards parity in leadership, start by focusing on parity in decision-making roles with P&L responsibilities. Work with feeders of operations personnel (recruiters, business/technical schools, etc.) to eliminate unconscious bias. When you can’t find enough candidates from within the company to diversify management, certainly look for quality candidates from outside the firm. However, you still need to focus on fixing the root cause: not having enough diversity in emerging leaders to be able to fill those needs internally.
Emerging leadership development goes hand in hand with talent development. The aim of both is to maximize and leverage performance of those individuals today while fostering their development into your company’s future leaders. Work together – sponsoring and mentoring emerging leaders – to give them challenges and opportunities to realize their potential. This cannot be ad hoc. Nor should it be limited to “succession management planning”. It must be systematic, deliberate and proactive.
Done well, you’ll keep your talents within the company longer. They will be intrinsically motivated by overcoming challenges and realizing major opportunities; renewed by the acceleration of their own growth; and gratified when they can continuously demonstrate their value to the firm which is, in the end, the company’s ultimate goal of talent development as well.