The right way to support emerging leaders

emerging leaders, leadership development
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As recruiting for organisational leadership becomes harder, identifying and developing home-grown talent is one solution. However emerging leaders need the right approach and support. Here’s how.

Recently several of our clients have been asking us about leadership development. In particular about the development of emerging leaders.

The ability to lead – to inspire, direct, and teach others – is a key proficiency that must permeate any organisation for it to be successful.

However, post-pandemic many people of working age have been reassessing what is important and looking for more flexibility, as a result lots of UK organisations have a talent shortage: 60% of employers found that talent was more difficult to retain in 2022 compared with the previous year, while 58% cited recruitment for senior and skilled roles as the most challenging.

As a result many of our clients are thinking about trying to grow their own leaders. The advantages of doing this are clear. They will:

  • develop and retain high-performers.
  • build a diverse, motivated pipeline of future leaders.
  • save money by promoting from within, and filling manager turnover.

The challenge with emerging leaders programmes

Putting together a brilliant emerging leaders programme is an incredible opportunity to impact the future of your organisation, and is one of the clearest ways to achieve bottom line results.

That said, building a programme for emerging leaders can be a long journey that is riddled with obstacles and traps, including the challenges of selecting the right people, working out what are the right competencies to train people in, and ensuring that delivery includes follow up and practice.

There are a number of poorly designed approaches to emerging leaders that are commonplace and even seen as best practice.

What we know is that some of these more traditional responses to developing leaders are based on models of inner and outer character traits. The training might include leadership methods, ​360 reviews​, a lot of personal reflection and a focus on personality and communication styles.

It can be a costly, time consuming process and it’s likely that participants will retain very little of what they learn if they’re not practising it on the job.

Leadership is a behaviour not a job title

We take a different approach to leadership.

We see leadership fundamentally as a behaviour, not a role or a job title. A thing you ‘do’, not that you ‘are’. Which means anyone can lead and people do it all the time. And whilst there are multitudes of styles that you can learn and use, what we are really interested in is finding practical tools that allow people to adopt leadership behaviours when they’re not necessarily in leadership roles.

Especially as research shows that it’s through application and practise that behaviour is actually changed.

So we’ve been running experiments with our university clients to work out how to best equip people to feel more confident and build competence at the same time, by working with staff groups on applied projects.

We’ve been working with one institution who have been reorganising their programme management and enrollment systems. Unsurprisingly the first time round threw up quite a few bumps, especially at the start of the year.

Whilst they were going through this change, various staff stepped in to help catch the stuff that would otherwise fall through the gaps. Those people were not in leadership roles but they stepped up anyway. Often without being asked.

What we notice is people who step up like this are often riddled with self doubt, and wondering whether they actually have any authority in ambiguous situations.

When thinking about selection for emerging leaders programmes, these are the kinds of people that organisations could choose to support and develop. They have ability and commitment. What they crave are tools and confidence. Tools to help them think about how they can influence meetings when they do not have any status, or how they can ensure different perspectives are included in conversations when they don’t have any control over the agenda.

Core competencies

In our experiments with these kinds of emerging leaders we focussed a lot on practising and building effective communication skills, especially how to interpret the emotional content of conversations and to use that understanding to:

  • better influence and make things happen,
  • ask the right questions to make sure that conversations don’t get stuck
  • use coaching skills to enable other people who might also be stuck

This is not something that we could do in a half-day workshop. It took a programme that offered repeated opportunities to:

  • try things out,
  • build confidence and
  • establish a supportive peer group.

Working together over time allowed us to focus the work on live issues while growing capability. Those things need some time and space to emerge.

From our prototypes, we can see the benefits of reflective spaces and how critical they are for success. Spaces where people can talk about their blocks and the challenges they have. Where they can share ideas, build trust, find allies and learn from each other.

This practical approach has proved key to making the support relevant and applicable. It has even led to tangible outcomes in the form of promotions, new project leadership and enduring peer-to-peer support.

What is your experience of supporting emerging leaders?

If you are building talent or enabling emerging leaders in your organisation, what are the practical things you’re doing and how are you building their capability?

How do you think about supporting people to develop their leadership behaviours before they take on formal leadership roles? Do you send people on leadership courses or do you work out how to build their competence from the ground up? We’d love to know.

If any of this resonates, or if you’re taking steps to create supportive environments for emerging leaders, we’d love to hear how you’re going about it.

At Then Somehow we help universities and institutions build emotional literacy, increase empathy, and help you see the world differently, giving you practical tools to shift the stuff that’s stuck.

If you’d like to discuss how we can help your organisation develop leaders and perform better, get in touch here.

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