Tom looks perplexed. His organization just finished building a plan for its next three years.

They had made significant progress. As he said in a meeting earlier in the week, “For the first time in a long time, I think we have a strategy!” But today, as he faces a list of high gain initiatives, Tom realizes his next major obstacle. “How are we going to get all of this done?” he wondered out loud. “We just don’t have the leadership bench we need to make this happen.”

Many organizations complain about the lack of leaders who can bring their mission to life. They fret about how much time it takes to develop those leaders and how they can’t afford to take people away from their real jobs for training, so they leave it up to HR to solve the puzzle. HR teams often do the traditional thing: they shape a leadership development program.

If they’re very traditional, they take potential leaders out of their jobs for a few days and send them to leadership development programs where they learn generalized leadership theory in the hope that they can bridge the gap back to daily work. If they’re more progressive, they create an action learning program where high potential leaders work together over a period of months through a series of development opportunities. Maybe they hire a coach. But in the end, the gap between what emerging leaders learn in programs and what they do in real life becomes a chasm they just can’t cross.

The next time the organization needs mobilizers and instigators, they still have the same problem. They look down at the leadership bench and it’s empty. Yet, the solution is hiding in plain sight. Any organization that runs a strategy process from which flow key initiatives is sitting on the Greatest Leadership Development Opportunity Ever. Those initiatives provide an opportunity to turn everyday work into a masterclass.

The Greatest Leadership Development Opportunity

Here’s why: think about a time you grew the most in your life. You were probably doing something you thought was super important. It was most likely a stretch in some way. You weren’t completely lost but it was far from a tap-in either.  There was probably just enough pressure and visibility to create urgency. You may have had a mentor who guided you without being overbearing. The conditions were perfect for a growth spurt.

It turns out that strategic initiatives can provide exactly that environment. They are among the most important initiatives in the organization. They’re in full view of key leaders. They get resources. There’s urgency. They’re challenging. And in smart organizations, they are guided by senior members of the company. Your HR team would have to knock themselves out to create anything nearly as useful for developing your leadership bench. The only thing missing is intentionality.

To transform get-it-done strategic initiatives into bench-building leadership experiences that also achieve results, you have to look at them beyond the way your project management organization usually does, as a list of tasks to rock out. You have to look at these initiatives through the lens of leadership development.

Even better, set a goal of at least doubling your proven leader team through this year’s initiative process. Make it clear that people development is just as important as project performance. Hold yourselves accountable for this outcome. Here’s how you get started.

Before you launch your initiatives – preferably before you even begin your strategy process – identify your proven and potential leaders. Start by spending time thinking about your people and sorting the proven leaders from the potential leaders. One simple way people do this is to plot each person on a map.

identifying potential leaders and leadership opportunities

Assess their ability to get results on the Y axis and how well they model your organization’s desired behaviors on the X-axis. Since we’re evaluating leadership behaviors here, you might want to add some influence-specific behaviors to your more general expected behaviors. Once you’ve mapped each person, you will quickly see a snapshot of your current leadership pipeline.

  • Team members who are in the upper right are your Proven Leaders. They’re the ones you and your senior team will trust to get stuff done in a way that creates the culture you want.
  • Team members who are on the fringes of the upper right quadrant are probably Potential Leaders. Your senior leaders want to trust them, but there’s some gap or lack of development that gets in the way of complete confidence. Maybe they haven’t been given the ball on a big task before, so it’s just inexperience. Maybe they get stuff done but don’t completely model the behavior you want in the company.
  • Team members in the upper left quadrant are Productive Mismatches. They get stuff done but they undermine the cultural values you try so hard to reinforce. Some Productive Misfits are consistently off-key with your desired behaviors. Others only occasionally hit a wrong note but they do so spectacularly. You’ll be tempted to keep them around and even make them team leaders. While that can work in some situations, it usually comes at a cost.
  • Team members in the lower right quadrant are Very Nice People. They do things right but they don’t do enough of the right things to turn that good behavior into results. While you hate passing them over, other team members stuck on their teams see them as luggage. Very, very nice luggage. But still something that has to be carried and not tripped on in the dark. It’s possible they can be productive team members instead of team leaders. But they must carry their weight.
  • Team members in the lower left… well, I can only say what all of your people are saying at the bar after work if they’re in leadership roles. “What dirty pictures do they have on our leaders that they get put in charge?”

Once you recover from your mild panic attack, tally up the number of people in each zone. Make it your explicit goal to convert a certain percentage of your potential leaders into proven leaders through your strategy process. Be bold about this target. Set your baseline. Maybe aim to double your bench. Be sure that your team knows the specific rewards available to them if they hit this target even if it’s just a big party at your house.

That quantified gap gets you started on closing your leadership bench strength problem. You have taken a hidden fact and made it visible.  You’ve noticed. That’s the first step of any great change. Stay tuned into that gap and get ready to take action.

Ted Harro

Ted Harro

Founder, Noonday Ventures

Ted helps people and organizations climb higher and shine brighter.

Before becoming a strategy and leadership consultant, he led the professional services division of Wilson Learning Worldwide. He has helped facilitate and implement plans in leading technology, industrial, professional services, and nonprofit environments in the U.S. and Western Europe. Ted holds a Masters in Organization Communication from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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