The corner office may be a long way away from an entry-level cubicle, in distance and in prestige. But executives that put a premium on developing new leaders can strengthen their overall business.
Just as in the basic principles of mentoring, leadership development can ensure that employees are learning and growing. It can pay big dividends, both for the employee by improving their performance and output, and for the business in benefiting from that improvement. And the hiring process is much easier when homegrown talent is rising through the ranks.
Glenn Llopis examined leadership development in a story for Forbes, noting that an employee’s success and career path “are all heavily influenced by the types of leaders they are able to observe and learn from.”
“This is why you will find that many of today’s best leaders were mentored by great leaders themselves,” he explains. “Success as a leader is a by-product of the leaders and mentors we associate with throughout our careers.”
Here’s a look at how CEOs can develop leadership within their companies.
Be a role model
There is no greater way to influence employees than by setting the right example: how to lead, how to be a professional, how to treat employees with respect, how to be accountable. In a story for Inc.com, David Finkel examines how to help managers become leaders: “How you interact with them is the playbook by which they’ll lead the rest of your team.”
“It’s not what you say but what you do that will influence their behavior,” he says. “Model clear communication and high integrity. Model high standards and empowering encouragement. Model your company values. And of course, when you screw up, which you will do from time to time, model personal responsibility and full ownership for apologizing and cleaning up your messes.”
Leadership can mean different things to different generations. Millennials are now the largest part of the workforce, according to the Pew Research Center. In a story for Fortune, Ron Williams and Jon Spector describe a gap between the skills most appreciated by current CEOs and by millennial leaders.
The latter most value interpersonal skills, they write, and “having a leadership style that has impact through both communication skills and emotional intelligence.” Current CEOs put more emphasis on “critical thinking, business know-how and managing stakeholders.”
“If millennial leaders’ views about the needed leadership skills remain ignored, disconnects look all but certain to arise between the two groups,” the authors explain. “Top leaders will continue to groom and promote only those who fit their profile, while millennial leaders will develop themselves according to their views. So it’s important to start talking about these differences. You can increase transparency and awareness among leaders at all levels about the expanding set of stakeholders that will matter to a senior leader’s success. And consider aligning your promotion and development tools toward the personal attributes a leader will need as his or her role evolves.”
The importance of questions
It may seem like a simple thing, but an executive asking for a young employee’s feedback can mean much more. The idea that their opinion matters can be a confidence boost, and the executive can benefit from the perspective. In a story for Inc.com, Mandy Gilbert paints a scenario of a young employee just out of college.
“One day,” she writes, “the boss schedules a meeting and takes a genuine interest in your career path and aspirations. They even want feedback on how the company operates, and how you would improve it.”
The effect that action can have is significant. As Gilbert explains: “Not only would you feel like you matter, but you’d also realize this company cares about your future.”
Among the questions she suggests asking: “What do they like about their role? What would they change? What are they passionate about? What’s their dream job?”
Experienced leaders can look back at their careers and point out decisions that they’d like to have back. A bad call, a faulty strategy, a communication breakdown, a missed opportunity. That experience can be valuable in helping to guide young employees. When they stumble, executives can evaluate the situation and point out where things went awry, and how they could have better approached it. Llopis’ story for Forbes emphasizes good judgment and decision-making in helping employees grow.
“This is where a strong leader will begin to determine where an employee is most and least predictable in how they react to a problem,” he says. “As they guide them rightly to identify the consequences and probability patterns of each decision, problem solving becomes a treasure hunt of unforeseen opportunities.”
Help them through the thinking process
Communication is a vital part of teaching and learning. Young employees may be full of questions, and the leadership team should be full of answers. Executives can do more by helping employees work through issues without necessarily providing an instant solution. As Finkel advises in his Inc.com story: “Fight your default urge to simply ‘solve,’ and instead ask them, ‘How do you think you should handle that?’”
“For many business owners this is one of the toughest habits to break,” he says. “We want to help; we have so many ideas and solutions at our finger tips. But we must realize that when we solve we lose the bigger opportunity of using the situation to help grow a future leader.”
It’s only natural that employees want to know how they’re doing. Is their work acceptable, and does it exceed expectations? Does it need improvement? A major part of leadership development is being able to provide constructive criticism. Catherine Wong examines this in a story for CEO.com, noting that this feedback “may be hard for some to hear, and may be hard for some to give, but it’s essential for growth.”
“We need to ensure our future leaders have the confidence and ability to ask for and give feedback in a genuine way,” she writes. “Renowned filmmaker George Lucas once said, ‘Mentors have a way of seeing more of our faults than we would like. It’s the only way we grow.’ As an engaged leader, you’ll encounter any number of situations where you’ll likely see opportunities for feedback and improvement.”
Trust them with new responsibilities
Employees who are in the early stages of their career may have big ambitions, and long for a more significant role. The big question is if they are ready to take on more. “We all have to pay our dues,” Gilbert’s Inc.com story notes, “but if their daily tasks remain the same day-in and day-out, they won’t be able to reach their full potential.”
Among her tips are including employees on a pilot project, or on “a task you’d give to someone at a project manager level, and see what happens.” And she suggests having these employees shadow others in the business: “Learning how each department operates will build greater understanding, and allow your staff to see exactly what each person does to contribute to the team.”