Best Practices


Companies of all sizes have to ensure that their future leaders are identified, nurtured and trained, and ready to take the helm when needed. Many studies have named the health of their talent pipeline as the number one concern of company executives both in the United States and abroad. Does your company have processes in place to ensure a robust talent pipeline?

One of the first things to consider is whether you have a leadership competency model in place. This type of model spells out what is needed to be successful as a leader in your company. Most such models focus on three areas of competency: leading the organization, leading oneself and leading others.

Leading the organization has to do with such competencies as strategic thinking, planning and execution, business analysis and decision making, leading change and ability to relate to and communicate with customers.

Leading oneself generally relates to areas such as ethics, self-control, humility, confidence, empathy and an ambition/desire to lead. Many references also describe the derailers to be alert for – negative qualities that stand in the way of success (arrogance, lack of ambition, fear of failure, etc.).

Leading others draws on abilities such as inspiring and motivating, coaching, sensitivity to diverse cultures and people, and multilevel communication.

You can access many examples of leadership models on the internet, but I suggest that you also weigh what is most important for your company, both in terms of current business challenges and your unique company culture. Incorporate or emphasize these traits in your own leadership competency model. For example if your company is facing significant competitive issues in your marketplace for the foreseeable future, you may well want your model to emphasize strategic thinking and business decision making, as well as leading change.

Once you have a basic competency model in place, you can begin to identify leadership candidates in your organization and rate them against these competencies. Consider setting up some kind of talent committee to do this so that you get broader input and different viewpoints. The rating of potential leaders against the competency elements will also identify where development needs exist. In many cases competencies can be developed or improved. However some areas in my experience are more difficult to develop or change than others; examples include strategic thinking and decision making. Also, a lack of personal ambition or desire to succeed is in my book a serious deficiency.

Perhaps you already have a leadership competency model in place and leadership candidates at the ready. How can you do the best job of developing these candidates into your future leaders? Here are some tools and techniques that I have seen succeed:

Rotational assignments. Give your top leadership candidates a series of two-year rotational assignments in different parts of the organization. Be sure to include an experience in sales so future leaders are well versed in how to talk to customers and how to represent their needs in your organization.

External training. There are some great training courses given by business schools to consider for your top candidates. This will not only deliver targeted training but can also expose your future leaders to others in the business world. Seek courses that attract international attendees, for an even richer cultural experience. And be sure theres an opportunity for sharing or demonstrating the learnings when the individual returns to the workplace.

Mentoring. I believe mentoring is extremely valuable in an organization! Not only does it provide people an opportunity to bounce ideas and issues off a trusted person, but having a mentor makes people feel valued. Its a highly useful retention tool.

Project roles. Leading a short-term project can be a great learning experience for future leaders. The most valuable projects will cut across multiple functions and/or geographical areas, and thereby maximize the learning. Of course, be careful that you dont throw your leadership candidate out there on a high-profile project too early or without some kind of safety net. And let them practice team-building: Give him or her the opportunity to plan a company anniversary party, organize a conference, or lead a safety or quality team.

Interactions with senior leaders. Be sure to encourage interaction between your leadership candidates and those in senior positions within your company. Also bring or send your candidates to leadership conferences and events. These can be great experiences, with exposure to high-level company issues and decisions. Theyll also have the opportunity to network and build relationships with a cross-section of current and future leaders.

Encourage career-path discussions with line leaders, because if leadership candidates cannot see the path to future promotions they are likely to leave. Remember, these are ambitious people and they crave responsibility and growth. They need to believe in the future with your company – and their line leadership is the best and most believable source of such information. They also need honest feedback on areas they need to work on and how to go about it.

Finally, give your future leaders exposure to customers. Attending customer meetings and conferences is a great learning experience.

Getting your talent pipeline established, supported and robust is hard but satisfying work, and will help to ensure the sustainability of your business success.

Sara Lefcourt of Lefcourt Consulting LLC specializes in helping companies to improve profits, reduce risk and step up their operations. Her experience includes many years in marketing, sales and procurement, first for Exxon and then at Infineum, where she was vice president, supply. E-mail her at or phone (908) 400-5210.

Looking Inside or Out?

When identifying your companys future leaders, a critical question to deal with is this: Do you have enough internal candidates to satisfy the future need, or will you need to hire from outside? This is a hard question to answer but here are some considerations.

Demographics of your current leadership. Estimate the number of positions opening up over the next five to 10 years, and take into account that not all of your leadership candidates will succeed. For example, if you have 10 positions potentially opening and 10 candidates, that is probably not sufficient. You may want to increase your pool by external hiring.

Cultural considerations. Would your company benefit from more outside or fresh thinking? Does it lack certain skills, such as experience in new geographies or financial acumen? If so, you might benefit from some targeted external hiring.

Diversity issues. The number of women and minorities of all types are likely increasing in your customer and business partner organizations, and also in the universities from which you recruit. Consider mirroring such changes in your own organization through some external hiring.

Quality of your leadership pool. If you are just not satisfied with the existing pool of candidates you may need to do some hiring to enrich it.

Keep in mind that external hiring has much higher risk than developing internal candidates. Hiring decisions are inherently difficult, and in my experience one out of two is not completely successful. In addition consider whether or not your culture is an easy one for outsiders to penetrate.

– Sara Lefcourt

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