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How do you develop leaders for the 2021 workplace?

April 16, 2021 - 17 min read
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What is leadership development?

Why do companies develop leaders?

What are the benefits of developing leaders?

Why is there a constant need to have new leaders?

Are the leaders we need today aligned with our leadership development programs?

How do you develop leaders for the 2021 workplace?

Put it into practice

If we google “leadership” we find that “Leadership is both a research area and a practical skill encompassing the ability of an individual, group or organization to lead, influence or guide other individuals, teams, or entire organizations.” A leader influences people through her “whys.” However, it’s rare to find all of the skills necessary to lead people effectively already present in one individual.

As such, a critical area of growth for any company looking to stay competitive is the ability to develop leaders. Empowering individuals to improve in key areas helps the company grow, promotes buy-in, and increases an organization’s relevance to the world and communities they serve.

What is leadership development?

Leadership development is the process of deliberately and systematically improving the ability of an individual to achieve results, communicate with, and empower others. Developing leaders doesn’t happen by accident. It is an intentional process that involves continual challenge, evaluation, and feedback — and it is one that never ends.

Many companies see the value in promoting candidates internally, but few provide them with the support that they need to thrive in their role. While leadership is a necessary skill for any manager, there are a few distinctions that separate a skilled leader from a manager. A leader is not just someone who coordinates people: he motivates them.

In Simon Sinek’s TED talk, he discusses what all great leaders have in common: they begin with their “why.” That is, a leader is someone moved from his “whys'' and his values. If people can recognize themselves in the same values, they become followers, getting inspiration from the leader and engagement to do what they are doing. It is not a secret that an engaged employee has better performance, and better performance enhances company profits.

Why do companies develop leaders?

Companies develop leaders to translate the values of the organization into actions that fulfill those values. A leader moved from his “whys'' will decide to be part of an organization when it reflects his values and motivation sources. People who follow a leader's values and vision, are actually following the company values, mission and vision. A leader who sets a value-based strategy inspires employees to take actions that empower the entire organization to realize their vision, producing long-term results through their every day work. 

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What are the benefits of developing leaders?

It’s rare to find someone who is a “natural-born leader.” Although we use the phrase commonly, we’re often describing someone who is a good speaker, extremely charismatic, or an excellent producer. However, top performers are not always good leaders. Good leaders are not simply people who provide great results, but they excel in emotional intelligence skills. Furthermore, your future leader is someone who has a potential to develop — both themselves and others.

Performance is what your employees are already doing, potential is what they are able to do: leadership is about the possibility of developing further.

A real leader is not someone who produces more followers: she produces more leaders. Leaders want the good of collectivity more than their individual interests. They want people to grow more than being dependent on them.

Although it’s clear that a leader isn’t found by accident, nor created simply by putting them in a position of authority, it’s less clear what it takes to actually “make” a leader. The term “development” is an appropriate one, since the most successful leaders have an intrinsic set of skills that are magnified through conscious self-improvement and experience.

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Why is there a constant need to have new leaders?

Companies are facing new challenges all of the time. As such they are in need of new ideas, new approaches, and new ways of delivering what customers value. New leaders often bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to both the old and new issues a company is facing. 

In addition, any growing company will naturally need new leaders to own and lead the new opportunities and fill in the gaps when others move into new positions. A healthy company has an insatiable demand for new leaders as this is a sign of ever-expanding opportunities. Even in slower-growing companies, companies need to develop a pipeline of new leaders well in advance, whether from turnover or retirement to unexpected new needs. 

A leader is someone who is naturally inclined to innovation and to “out of the box” thinking. If companies want to survive market undulations and competitors, taking advantages from the change is the best resource to develop in employees. 

According to Fred Kofman, executive coach and advisor on leadership, people in companies follow what leaders do more than what is said (Conscious Business Coaching). When a leader is courageous and takes new actions, employees will do the same, with the result of people who are able to navigate change and be innovative.

Are the leaders we need today aligned with our leadership development programs?

Just as doctors and financial experts need to do regular continuing education in order to stay effective and relevant, so do leaders. The workplace is undergoing a rapid shift, accelerated by several factors. More than ever before, leaders are called to be:

Forward-thinking: In a modern business climate, companies can distinguish themselves quickly with innovation and agility, with previously-unknown companies rapidly unseating entire industries. Today’s leaders need to have the foresight to anticipate a shifting landscape.

Relatable: Leaders need to be “in-touch” with the clients they serve as well as the people who work for them. Leaders that cling to an overly rigid or elitist attitude often find themselves alienating others.

Compassionate: Leaders encourage and inspire people at every level of the organization when they are considerate of personal challenges, goals, and values. They make people feel respected and welcome.

Courageous: Amidst surging awareness of social justice issues, leaders must be unafraid to call out racism, misogyny, prejudice, bigotry, and oppressive practices. They advocate for the people who place trust in them.

Flexible: A leader has to be able to respond quickly and effectively in the face of uncertainty, while keeping in mind the potentially conflicting interests of the organization, the industry, the client, and the employee — and often under scrutiny.

How do you develop leaders for the 2021 workplace?

While some people are born with a natural leadership ability, every leader can benefit from development and training. There’s always room to improve, particularly among high-potential team members as they transition into leadership roles. This is a crucial point in their professional journey, and it’s important to set them up for success.

Here are seven strategies for effective leadership development:

1. Create a development plan. Identify your future leader’s strengths, areas for development, and professional goals. Then create a development plan, which may include training, coaching, mentoring, and stretch assignments. Set goals so the high-potential team member and their manager can measure progress. 

Tip: A coach can help you identify leadership development needs, create comprehensive plans, and measure progress.

2. Mentoring. A mentor is an expert who can guide and inspire less experienced team members. It is useful for every skill needed to develop, but especially with leadership.

Tip: Let the future leader choose a mentor. In order to get the most from mentoring, a strong relationship has to be built. That's why it is important that the mentee find someone who inspires them. This principle is even more important in leadership, since recognizing yourself in your mentor’s leadership style is critical to growth.

3. Continuous feedback. Developing new skills can be demanding and labor-intensive. Without consistent feedback, your team can get bored and uninspired.

Your future leaders are your asset, so you should pay attention to them! Every time you see they are doing a good job, let them know.

Tip: Before providing your feedback ask them: What do they think they did well? Asking them to participate in their self-assessment builds autonomy.

4. Peer-to-peer groups. Knowing what you have to do for your development is different from actually doing it. A peer-to-peer group can be a wonderful opportunity to express common difficulties and share possible solutions. 

Tip: In order to promote “out of the box thinking,” intentionally create diverse groups. Have someone facilitate the discussion to ensure everyone is heard.

5. Overcoming separations. Leadership programs shouldn’t just promote good ideas — they should give developing leaders a way to see those ideas come to life. If your employee, thanks to the program, comes back to her work with unconventional ideas that she is unable to apply, she’ll lose motivation and trust. Ensure your future leaders will have the freedom to do something courageous.

Tip: Let them know from the beginning that the program is designed to create real change, and they will be able to bring unconventional ideas to their work.

6. Developing leader-coaches. A good leader is someone who creates more leaders. Help your future leaders develop their communication skills. Coaching skills such as active listening, powerful questioning, and effective feedback can be an asset to support other people's growth. 

Tip: Periodically follow-up training with requests for feedback to monitor results.

7. Get out of the comfort zone. Do you know how to bring out a hidden strength? If you think about your career or private life you probably will find that you express your best in difficult periods. Hidden strengths often need a challenge to manifest. Push your future leaders out of their comfort zone. 

Tip: You may assign a challenging project or a different role, but don’t put too much stress on your people! If we push our employees too far from their actual abilities, they may burn out (and this is called the fire zone). Support them as they tackle new challenges.

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Put it into practice

In conclusion, there are 3 things you should remember:

  1. Investing in your future leaders is the best thing you can do. It results in more motivation for your employees, better performances and more profits, more alignment to your vision and mission and values, and a more innovative culture.
  2. Your future leaders may not be your best performers. Look for potential by being attentive to aspects of the person (outside of their metrics). Have a holistic view of the employee and to what they do outside of their role.
  3. Look at both short-term, simple strategies that you can use in developing leaders. For long-term leadership development strategies, involve your whole team (including your human resources team and external consultants).
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Published April 16, 2021

Giulia Imbastoni

BetterUp Associate Coach

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