Developing future leaders

How to build your bench strength

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Leadership Development

In sports, the head coach trains and develops all of the players on the team; particularly those who are key to winning now, but also the up-and-coming leaders and future stars.

It’s called building bench strength. And it’s no different from what a CEO, president or business owner must do to grow and improve business performance over the long haul.

In a company, the person at the top must deal with a variety of critical issues such as operations, sales, financials and strategy. Like sports, building and sustaining a business requires a strong bench of “playmakers” who are best supported by a company culture that stresses ongoing leadership development.

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Training versus development

These two learning models often become blurred.

Training follows more of a classroom-style format, and includes learning about mainstream tools and techniques to improve business operations.

Leadership development gives employees a chance to collaborate. It creates a dynamic “living laboratory” to address real-world issues and challenges. It builds upon improving problem-solving skills and people-solving skills, known as emotional intelligence.

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At its very core, leadership development must be experiential, contextual and mindful for participants. Typically, this is much more of a process rather than a traditional learning program. Think of it in terms of a journey, not a destination.

It works best when coupled with the systematic, hands-on guidance of a discerning coach, and not necessarily from a subject matter expert.

Leadership development best practices

Best practices for leadership development should include:

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  • Learning through experiences that most closely match the real world. This usually works best in a smaller group setting in which employees are encouraged to discuss contrarian viewpoints. It creates space for greater analysis and critical thinking. It’s known as experiential learning.
  • Contextual thinking to help equip aspiring leaders with skills to better understand the evolving business environment, deal with ambiguity and complexity, and align resources with objectives in order to capitalize on new opportunities.
  • Interpersonal development that teaches listening skills, time management, collaboration among teams, accountability and leadership.

Even with this renewed understanding of leadership development, can anything go wrong? Yes, indeed. Here are some of the missteps to avoid:

  • Not giving employees a chance to use their new leadership skills in their current jobs.
  • Burdensome “day job” responsibilities, which allow little or no time to make positive changes.
  • Lapsing into old work habits and routines, which go unchecked over time.
  • Resisting change. A fixed mindset of “this is the way we’ve always done things around here.”
  • Conflicting policies, unclear strategies, and little or no support by the CEO, who fails to communicate priorities.

These landmines strain the effectiveness of outcome-based leadership development. They discourage key employees from being motivated and, as a result, harm succession planning. They set up people to fail and leave little chance for the company to recoup its investment. Avoid these problems at all costs.

More than ever, today’s businesses must be fertile grounds for new ideas, attitudes and processes. They must create an environment where it’s “psychologically safe” to question everything and challenge the status quo.

The benefit of an ongoing leadership development process for key employees most often results in greater engagement, more accountability and better decision-making and communication.

A business culture that focuses on continuous learning and leadership development, particularly at the key executive level, capitalizes on the only remaining competitive advantage other companies can’t analyze or copy.

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