Leaders Aren’t Born, They’re Developed from Within

By 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the labor force will include 13 million experienced employees ages 65 and older. As many of these workers and leaders begin to retire, employers should critically assess their plan for filling the leadership roles that will be left empty. Although many employers pursue external candidates when hiring for leadership roles, the best leaders are often those who are developed from within – employees who have been identified for their potential and, through organizational investment, are trained to step into leadership roles.

Creating an internal leadership development program is one of the best ways to build a constant, reliable stream of leaders within an organization. These are talented individuals who have the benefit of already understanding company culture and processes and who have proven themselves as strong team members.

Establishing such a program may seem time or resource-intensive, but it’s too important to not pursue: people are the organization’s today and tomorrow. A new leadership development program may eventually grow into a larger one with a dedicated staff and budget, but until then, there are several cost-effective, high-impact solutions for those that are just getting started.

#1: Create Communication Pathways

Strong communication pathways are key to successful leadership development programs. It’s important to continuously communicate to employees what they can do to grow within the organization. What are the competencies required in future leaders? What are the roles the organization needs to fill? What are the learning opportunities or programs they can pursue?

Additionally, opening the door for ongoing conversations about an individual’s long-term plans for their career helps foster a culture of growth. These conversations are important for employees at all levels and at all points in their tenure with the organization–a newly hired, entry-level employee can benefit from them just as much as a senior employee on a management track. It’s the employer’s responsibility to work with employees to help them think about what their careers might look like five years down the line and help them build the expertise needed to get there.

#2: Build a Learning Environment

It’s important to consider how to implement leadership development programming. Face-to-face, online, and virtual hybrid learning are all important modalities, and there isn’t one “right way” of executing this. It’s about balancing options and creating a learning environment that meets employee needs.

Online learning offers some unique benefits, particularly in large organizations, as it allows for more interaction across locations and offices. This can result in improved communication throughout the organization and larger employee networks that can facilitate coaching and mentoring. Professional development via a virtual modality also offers students the opportunity to immediately apply what they’re learning to their own work, in “real time” so to speak, and to use their new knowledge to help others on their teams learn and grow.

#3: Foster Opportunities for Coaching and Mentorship

There are key differences between coaching and mentorship, but the success of a leadership development program depends on both being encouraged and actively promoted within an organization. Mentors are often in different areas of the organization, higher up in the organizational hierarchy, and able to guide mentees through their careers. They serve as a resource for brainstorming ideas, sharing personal experiences, and identifying opportunities for development. Coaches, on the other hand, regularly work one-on-one with employees to set goals, identify plans for development and growth, and achieve career goals.

Systems for coaching and mentorship can be formal or informal, but either way, an organization needs to support their existence and create opportunities for both to take place.

#4: Allow for Mistakes

As employees proceed through a leadership development program, it’s important to give them opportunities to put their knowledge and skills into practice. One way to do this is to identify or create low-stakes problems to solve independently. For this to be successful, coaches should push employees to think outside the box and give them permission to take risks and make mistakes.

Coaching employees through these complex challenges while allowing for safe mistakes is an excellent way to help employees learn in a real-world format and will help build better leaders who know they are encouraged to think creatively and bring new ideas to the table.

#5: Start from a Place of Strength

When developing leaders, it’s important to remember the principles of positive organizational development and appreciative inquiry–methods that start from a place of positivity during training and development. Rather than focusing on what an employee needs to improve, emphasize the employee’s strengths, reframing areas of weakness as opportunities for growth rather than issues that need to be addressed.

Providing ongoing support for how employees can meaningfully build skills in areas where they might require additional education or guidance and allowing for open dialogue around how those areas could be strengthened, gives employees the confidence they need to become strong leaders and contributes to a culture of positive growth.

By following the tips above, smaller-scale programs can be implemented quickly and cost-effectively, with the goal of growing over time. Organizations that are starting out should recognize the importance of finding the right partner (like a college that specializes in this type of work) to build capacity and increase the organizational leadership development bench. Institutions like Champlain College Online can help you find efficient ways to scaffold and grow your existing development initiatives: for example, our truED program has recently introduced Champlain Stackables, a customizable leadership and management learning solution featuring stackable learning options, designed help organizations affordably fill skills gaps within their workforces and focus on the key areas that matter most given their unique culture and business objectives.

Although it may take some initial effort to jump-start an organization’s internal leadership development program, it is a critical investment for organizations of all sizes. The organizations that take the time to create these programs–whether it’s done internally, or with a partner–will realize the benefits of cultivating talent from within.

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