Most people believe that leadership is innate.  You are either born with the ability to lead or you are not.  Although some individuals are born with a natural aptitude to influence, leadership is a skill that can be learned and mastered with time, training, coaching, and individualized leadership development programs.

Leadership development has been an established practice for cultivating the next generation of top executives.  This is why great companies like Walt Disney, Zappos, and Nordstrom have invested in leadership programs that elevate their employees and prove crucial to company success.

Leaders are change agents who play a transformative role in an organization’s ability to drive success.  If an organization faces a leadership deficit at any point in time, it will be unable to achieve its goals.  That is why the process of developing leaders from within your organization should be an essential component of your organization’s growth strategy.

Identify Leadership Candidates

While traditional leadership development programs have offered a variety of training and courses to all employees in hopes of bettering the entire workforce, an organization’s development dollars would be much better spent focusing on those specifically identified potential leaders in the organization.

How do executives identify these potential leaders?   Beyond standardized tools that are used to identify an organization’s “bench strength”, there is a set of critical behaviors and disciplines that indicate an aptitude for leadership.

Focus on High Potential – Not Performance

An employee’s potential should outweigh performance as a parameter when evaluating a potential future leader.  Performance defines ability and expertise.  Consider his or her aptitude, desire to grow, and overall potential as an indicator of success in a leadership role.

Observe Level of Engagement

Ask the question, does the employee proactively make suggestions for process improvement or demonstrate interest and willingness to push outside his or her knowledge-base to achieve tangible results for the organization?

Ask if He/She is a Catalyst or Watcher

A catalyst makes things happen – they become an integral part of the decision-making process.  They drive results.  So instead of watching and waiting for things to happen or to be told what to do, this person makes things happen.

Ask if He/She is Accountable

Employees who are not afraid to hold themselves accountable for failure, as opposed to shying away from responsibility afraid it might reflect poorly on them, demonstrate leadership potential.

Look for Evidence of empathy and Emotional Intelligence

Is the individual a good team player?  Does he/she help others?  Put others before themselves?  Does the employee focus on building personal relationships?  If the answer to these questions is yes, then you have identified a leader, someone who can constructively use people for the benefit of the organization.

Integrate Learning Into Work Environment

Traditionally, development has consisted of providing promising leaders with more knowledge alongside an expanding skill set in order to gradually take over the reigns of a particular role in the organization.

While this conventional approach means well and can positively impact the quality of leaders within a company, it merely scratches the surface of developing the solid corporate leadership talent required to propel an entire organization forward in today’s challenging business climate.

Take a Holistic Approach –

To develop leadership capabilities that drive results across the organization, executives must take a more holistic approach to how they develop leaders and how learning integrates with the organization’s overall strategy.

Routine executive training programs should be revamped to cultivate a comprehensive leadership development mindset.   Off-site educational courses and yearly assessments should be replaced with meaningful experiences that mirror the company’s mission and strategy.

Direct Instruction –

One of the most effective ways to expand leadership capabilities is to offer relevant direct instruction (or on the job training).  Typical shadowing of a senior executive is not sufficient; instead the managers should engage and trust their future leaders to take on existing challenges outside of his or her comfort zone.  Business leaders have a duty to embrace comprehensive training—from personal coaching to practical opportunities that stretch a candidate’s capabilities.

Collaborate with Potential Leaders –

Executives should collaborate with staff members to identify and build a plan for the competencies they want to develop.  These discussions can be integrated into the performance evaluation process, a natural setting to explore skills team members need to advance the organization.

According to the Corporate Leadership Council, achieve maximum effectiveness, developmental opportunities must involve: Discomfort, Accountability, Clarity and Relevance.

Provide Practical Application –

Senior leaders should identify potential crossover projects, board presentations, creative initiatives, and other opportunities that provide practical experience.  The key is to determine activities the organization already performs.  These day-to-day functions should provide sufficient opportunity to put rising stars in leadership situations, at little cost and with minimal disruption to the organization.

Many successful leaders would add that allowing the employee to struggle a bit can provide a meaningful opportunity for growth.  So instead of intervening in a situation where the employee may genuinely need help, a manager can sit back and push the employee to figure out how to get what they need – on their own.  For a top performer, this process can be very motivating and empowering.  However, for a non- top performer, this might feel overwhelming and perceived as a lack of support.

Create Empowerment

Most leadership development programs focus on doing –  mastering new skills and knowledge to evoke certain desired skills and behaviors.  True leadership effectiveness starts with how a leader thinks – how he or she thinks about his or her influence in the organization.  Employees can be coached on leadership – but they will not actually use those skills unless they believe they are a trusted and valued contributor to the organization.

If employees are taught how to make intelligent informed decisions but are still required to run every idea by his or her manager, how empowered will they feel?

Leadership development programs must drive an ownership mentality that starts with trusting employees and giving them the authority to make decisions.  If employees feel like an integral part of the company, they will naturally emerge as leaders.

In Conclusion

To compete in today’s ever-changing global marketplace, it is essential that organizations expand their current leadership development programs into an active process.  Once organizations tailor a development process that integrates learning and empowers their leadership candidates, they will be poised to create future leaders who are prepared to expand the vision of the company and drive success.