Helping New Leaders Succeed and Scale

It’s often a long and arduous journey for employees and managers to get promoted to the executive ranks of a company.  So why, after all that vetting, do so many new senior leaders fail to “scale” and live up to expectations?  

It’s because many organizations are too focused on an individual’s performance in their current or past roles, and not their potential in a broader role.  The best salespeople don’t necessarily make the best sales managers.  The most skilled spreadsheet expert might not be a CFO candidate.  But often, the process to identify high potential candidates places too much emphasis on these performance-based characteristics because they are easier to identify and communicate.

This is not to say that we don’t want high performers in our most critical leadership positions.  Of course we do!  But we need to consider and develop the candidates’ intangible skills more deeply before throwing them in the executive deep end.  Competencies like communication, dealing with ambiguity, strategic acumen, and trustworthiness will make the difference on whether someone succeeds as they move up in the organization.  If you haven’t already, it is critical that you develop a list of these attributes that are connected to your organization’s values.  And then, most importantly, you must begin to educate your workforce on how to model the right behaviors before it becomes a sink or swim necessity.

Here are some best practices on how you can bring this concept to life as part of a programmatic effort to enhance the success and scalability of your best people:

  1. Performance management process: Ensure that your performance management system provides managers with the tools and opportunity to offer feedback on the intangible skills that your company values in its leaders.  Train your managers on how to recognize the critical leadership attributes that your organization has identified and, perhaps more importantly, enable managers to be “part of the solution” in helping employees improve.  
  2. Opportunities for practice: Provide opportunities for top performers to practice their leadership skills, such as leading projects or teams, taking on new responsibilities, or participating in leadership development programs that include practical exercises.  These opportunities should be relatively risk-free for the employee.  Make the environment supportive and focus solely on helping aspiring leaders develop their skills.  This is NOT the time and place to weed people out of your high-potential pool.  If you take that approach (and many companies do), don’t be surprised if prospective leaders begin to shy away from these programs or projects.
  3. Mentorship opportunities: Connect top performers with experienced leaders (inside or outside the company) who can serve as mentors and provide pragmatic guidance and support.  Approximately 80% of CEOs indicate they had an important mentor during the formative stages of their career(and beyond). There is no substitute for learning from someone who has “been there and done that”.  These mentors are often in the best place to help mold raw talent into a successful senior executive in your organization.
  4. Cross-functional experiences: Encourage top performers to take on new challenges and gain exposure to different areas of the organization, such as working on cross-functional teams or participating in job rotations.  The most successful executives understand the ENTIRE business, at least at some level.  And working in different parts of the organization will help the employee form relationships that will be critical to leading larger teams in the future.

Invest in the development of soft skills for key talent early on, so individuals can stumble and learn without a significant negative impact on the organization or their own career.  Ultimately it is in your company’s, and your people’s, best interest to ensure your leaders are well equipped to succeed and scale immediately as they take on bigger responsibilities.  

Jay Parker is the CEO of Mentorforce, a company that offers pragmatic people development solutions for growing organizations.  Prior to starting Mentorforce, Jay spent 20+ years as a senior leader in the technology industry, most recently as President of Dell’s $50B Personal Computer division.

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