Successful companies that are set up to thrive, now and into the future, invest in leadership development. A two-pronged approach that ensures that current leaders continually upskill and grow professionally while also building a leadership pipeline by developing promising potential leaders is the best way to future-proof your organization. The focus on constant development of employees at multiple levels is, of course, a call to learning leaders to get heavily involved.

Start with management training

Management training is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to developing leaders who will move into C-suite roles, but it is the perfect place to start with creating a curriculum and building a pipeline of future leaders.

According to The Big Think, “The best management training program is one that, over time, proves to increase employee retention, boost teams’ productivity, and ultimately impact the bottom line.”

Yet, according to a 2018 Forbes article, 58% of managers report that they have never received management training.

Management training should focus on critical skills for managers—and all leaders—like providing effective feedback, building and motivating a cohesive, successful team, and, increasingly, digital skills, as well as virtual collaboration skills and managing hybrid teams.

Benefits of leadership development

The most obvious benefit of developing a management and leader development curriculum is, of course, upskilling existing managers and leaders, thereby increasing their effectiveness. But that’s far from the only benefit!

Employees, especially high-performers, consistently express a desire for personal and professional development at work—so much so that 94% told LinkedIn Learning that they’d stay longer at a company that provided development opportunities.

Preparing people for promotion sends a clear message that your organization values its employees, believes in their potential, and prioritizes creating career paths for promising employees.

In addition, development opportunities and career paths—opportunities for upward or horizontal career moves—are key considerations for workers considering a job (or weighing leaving the one they have).

Holding onto well-trained people with leadership potential is at the heart of developing a leadership pipeline. And it’s an ideal way “that learning leaders can help future-proof their organizations and increase employee longevity and loyalty,” according to Level Up, a recent Learning Guild eBook.

Rebuilding depleted leadership pipelines

The pandemic has taken a toll on leadership pipelines. In its Global Leadership Forecast 2021, DDI pointed out that “As companies focused mainly on survival during the pandemic, many largely ignored their succession and high-potential programs, and their ability to build new leaders fell behind.”

Rather than a linear plan, HBR states that “succession management must be a flexible system oriented toward developmental activities, not a rigid list of high-potential employees and the slots they might fill.”

This requires a combination of development activities with a much broader scope than training courses alone can provide. Leadership development might include any—or all—of:

  • Job rotations and special assignments that provide future leaders exposure to and experience with tasks outside of their current job roles: Bringing together groups of high-performers who don’t usually work together and tasking them with finding a solution to a problem, sometimes termed “action learning” enables people to share experience and speak openly about challenges while also gaining experience problem-solving and thinking about issues outside of their usual day-to-day work.
  • Coaching and mentoring relationships that encourage meaningful, deep one-on-one connections: Developing such rapport can be challenging in a virtual environment. In “What Great Mentorship Looks Like in a Hybrid Workplace,” HBR suggests that mentor pairs monitor their progress and report publicly, whether using a formal framework or informal opportunities. “Pairs should set and check in on goals, and should create a public or semi-public forum to share progress. While these forums may have happened informally in the office, companies need to proactively foster digital equivalents in a remote office,” HBR said.
  • Preparing middle managers for other types of leadership, such as managing functions, broad projects, business functions, strategic planning, or other high-level leadership functions: “Whereas succession planning generally focuses on a few positions at the very top, leadership development usually begins in middle management. Collapsing the two functions into a single system allows companies to take a long-term view of the process of preparing middle managers, even those below the director level, to become general managers,” HBR said in “Developing Your Leadership Pipeline.”

In fact, “Building Leaders at Every Level,” a paper by Stephen Drotter and Ram Charan, argues that companies fail because they fail to develop managers who have the necessary skills to move beyond their current level, understand how their current role differs from roles held by others above and below them in the chain of command, and are accountable for their own and their reports’ results.

Creating a leadership-development curriculum and intentionally building a leadership pipeline entails planning, starting with defining requirements for each level of leadership, beginning with middle management, and “provides a system for identifying when someone is ready to move to the next leadership level,” according to Drotter and Charan.

With measurement and evaluation built into the program—areas where learning leaders have considerable experience—building a leadership pipeline forces learning leaders to focus on identifying and filling existing and anticipated skills gaps and on the strategic planning that can often be neglected when responding only to more immediate needs.

Explore the ways leadership is changing

The set of skills and knowledge learning leaders need is constantly evolving. The Learning Guild’s newest eBook, Level Up: Preparing for a New Learning Leadership Paradigm, explores the emerging leadership paradigm and the associated skills and behaviors. The eBook is free to Learning Guild members.

To learn more, join us at the upcoming Learning Leaders Online Forum, March 16–17, 2022, which will take a deep dive into challenges learning leaders are facing and share strategies for meeting those challenges.