At some point in the life-cycle of any business, the owner needs to consider a change in leadership. To that end, it often makes sense to tap someone already in the company—an employee senior enough and familiar with operations to take the reins so that there is a smooth transition with little disruption. Even before that transition, having a healthy pipeline of talented employees who are leadership-ready can give your firm a distinct competitive advantage.

One of the biggest mistakes organizations make when it comes to leadership development is to assume that someone who has made his or her numbers is automatically a high-performer and has the functional and technical depth to be a leader in the company. That’s often not the case, says Lisa Crawford, founder of The Crawford Group, a San Diego, California leadership consulting firm. She likens the search for internal talent to finding diamonds in the rough—you may have to dig a few layers down in the organization, and apply some techniques to shape and polish these future leaders.


While there are many assessment tools and programs on the market today, fast-growing companies may not have formal mechanisms for identifying and developing leaders, says Kelly Botto, a partner in Camden Consulting Group, a leadership development consultancy in Boston, Massachusetts. In such cases, finding high-potential candidates could be as simple as gathering company leadership with the goal of discussing performance and potential. In addition to identifying candidates that may be somewhat obvious, it’s also quite possible that other company leaders are unaware of other employees exhibiting potential. These are candidates for leadership development, as well, possibly filling new roles or being developed for promotions within the company.

As potential leaders are identified, there are a number of proven strategies that companies can incorporate to help bring them to the level of knowledge and experience they need to reach in order to take on more responsibility, says Crawford. When companies begin to use these tactics on a regular basis, the company’s leadership practices will be grounded in a solid base.

  • Shadowing. Employees are paired with someone more senior in a role that employee may someday fill, and the two spend time together as the more senior person fulfills his or her responsibilities. Botto says that, during shadowing sessions, the employee should be watchful, taking in the actions and decision-making of the supervisor, but should also feel free to ask questions when appropriate in order to better understand what is being done and why.
  • Mentoring. Mentoring programs aren’t just friendly once-a-month lunches, says Crawford. When creating a mentoring relationship, there should be goals. The high-potential candidate should be discussing projects, performance, and goals with the mentor and getting his or her feedback about improvement. And that feedback needs to be more than superficial praise.  “It has to be more specific than ‘attaboy’ or ‘attagirl’, she says. It has to be specifically about the behaviors and performance for it to be meaningful and part of the leadership development process,” says Crawford. 
  • On-the-job training. Some high-potentials are given tasks that stretch them beyond their current capabilities. Such on-the-job training requires access to more senior personnel for guidance and answers, as well as a method of check-in to be sure that appropriate progress is being made, says Botto. This is not a case of sink-or-swim, she says. Instead, leaders should be watching closely to see how the high-potential candidate reacts to a “stretch” task and how he or she works to complete it.
  • Continuous feedback. High-potential candidates going through leadership training are often subjected to continuous feedback, also called 360-degree feedback, from supervisors, peers, and direct reports, which helps them quickly understand the actions that need improvement and adjust accordingly. However, says Botto, those who have never been through a continuous feedback process before need to be prepared and supported.  “You can’t just do a 360 and not do anything else, otherwise, you’re just lobbing all of this feedback over the fence and the poor person doesn’t know what to do with it. It can be very dangerous and have the opposite effect, of disengaging the employee,” she says.


These powerful tools are an excellent foundation for an organization to begin building a full slate of leadership-ready employees. However, the most important factor in any organization’s leadership development program is senior management itself, says Crawford. These messages need to come from the top down in order for the company leaders to inspire their successors.

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