How to Identify Emerging Leaders and Why They’re Important for Succession Planning
Emergent leadership occurs when a team member steps up to lead their peers without formally holding a leadership role. This makes emerging leaders important as they reduce bottlenecks, improve culture and influence change, without intervention from senior management.
Nurturing them through an emerging leaders program strengthens your leadership bench and de-risks succession planning processes. How so, you ask? We cover it all in this article. Let’s dive in.
What is an emerging leader?
Emerging leaders are high achievers who show leadership potential. Emergent leadership occurs when one person steps up to lead their peers, who consider the emerging leader a subject matter expert and source of support in the workplace.
Why are emerging leaders important?
Succession planning is a tricky beast before you add environmental uncertainty into the mix. Layoffs can create gaps in the talent pipeline you’d so carefully nurtured for months on end. Maternity leave, illness and holidays can spring up without warning. Technology and consumer behaviour can change the market and business approaches, fast.
To ensure your leadership bench isn’t affected by economic and personal events, you need to de-risk the succession planning process as much as possible. Enter the emerging leader.
Emerging leaders are high performers who hold a not-insubstantial amount of influence in your workforce. They’re not just bench reserves, though. They should be front of mind for your leadership draft picks because:
- They spread the good word, so to speak, with minimal effort needed from senior management, making them well-place change agents.
- Leadership skills are distributed throughout the workforce with emerging leaders, not just at certain levels of a hierarchy.
- As trusted and informal team leaders for their peers, the transition from subordinate to managing people is smoother for all involved.
The cost of neglecting emerging leaders
Think of indoor plants. They can grow in ideal conditions: Sunlight, regular watering, nutritious soil (generally speaking). But left under a vent in a dark room with little water, and they’ll likely wilt.
The future leaders of your organisation need a good environment in which to develop. Neglecting your emerging leaders can look like:
- Ignoring and even suppressing their ideas
- Discouraging ingenuity in favour of the status quo
- Rewarding burnout, thereby encouraging an unsustainable way of working
- Defining solely leadership by a job title
- Stagnant development opportunities.
McKinsey found that 40% of workers are planning to leave their jobs in a post-lockdown world because of little upward mobility. If you don’t create conditions for emerging leaders to appear, then you weaken your leadership bench or risk not having one at all.
And in the absence of naturally occurring talent and influence, time-critical responsibilities are neglected and successors go underdeveloped for leadership roles. And without a leadership bench, you’ll only focus on existing roles, meaning you won’t be prepared with the emerging roles needed to be future business needs.
How do you identify an emerging leader?
Here’s the thing. Emerging leaders are generally chosen. Their peers will recognise their leadership skills or leadership mindset in the context of their environment and gravitate towards it.
Still, watching the group dynamic, there are a few characteristics you’ll find identify emerging leaders. They:
- Have a growth mindset
- Are a team player
- Wield latent influence
- Exhibit high potential.
Anyone stepping into a leadership role should exhibit motivation for not only the change in responsibilities, but your organisation’s mission.
That means that they’re not content in their comfort zone. You’ll find them striving to understand others’ expertise, taking on projects that test their capabilities and even seeking out leadership development. They’re not afraid to take risks or fail—rather, they’ll take lessons from mistakes in pursuit of a more efficient or innovative way forward.
Your emerging leaders are those that step up to help others without being asked. They advocate for their peers and reflect the melting pot of communication styles in your team, embodying the true spirit of team player.
And as future managers, they often seek out new perspectives for decision-making. They encourage ideas and build rapport through collaboration because an emerging leader knows that their peers’ career development is as important as their own, if only to create stronger teams.
Leadership is built on the ability to influence others to buy into a mission. But before formally stepping into leadership positions, emerging leaders rally and motivate their coworkers. They take on emotional support, realigning team mates with positive outcomes when the going gets tough, creating a valuable why for peers and executing accountability.
It makes sense that an emerging leader would also be a high potential (HiPo) employee. HiPos aren’t just high achievers; they emerge through continuous improvement of their own capabilities.
Say there are two high performers on a team. One thrives in their current role but they don’t often extend themselves beyond their responsibilities. The other flexes their critical thinking skills beyond the realm of their role. Which do you think is going to have the larger strategic impact?
How do you develop emerging leaders?
An emerging leadership program alone is only part of the puzzle when developing future leaders. Like a talent pipeline, there is work to be done before a high achiever undertakes development pathway. Think of this as a convergent pathway for succession.
One path is the formal leadership trajectory. A high-performing success officer could expect to track to success manager to director to CCO. But career planning as part of emergent leadership isn’t always so obvious. Development must be agile to support lateral and dynamic succession planning.
How does one L&D team facilitate this, then? It requires a shift in the culture towards talent mobility, according to Josh Bersin.
- Turn managers into talent scouts
- Give them guidance
- Stretch their capabilities
- Put them on development plans.
1. Get managers to scout talent
High potential and emerging leaders are, by definition, not immediately obvious. That means your vanguards of workforce planning (HR and L&D leaders) may not be best placed to find them.
Managers and existing team leaders are your best internal talent scouts. They have their finger on the pulse of team dynamics and performance.
Avoiding cultural hurdles
Managers are busy people. On top of that, it’s fine a line between keeping them accountable for employee retention and preventing them from talent hoarding.
Practical tools, like performance evaluations, development plans within learning technology and stretch assignments, give managers concrete proof of high potential. This way, they’re not biased in their view of leadership potential.
2. Provide mentoring and coaching
Mentoring is an incredibly useful tactic in any kind of professional development, but it’s particularly helpful for an emerging leader program.
Considering emerging leaders are developing specific leadership capabilities, a mentor provides:
- A neutral sounding board
- A psychologically safe environment
- Shared experience
- A role model for leadership styles
- Broader business and/or industry knowledge.
Avoiding cultural hurdles
Don’t just assign mentors and assume they’ll happily devote their time to a program. They’ll need to be willing to take part in a mentorship program. You’ll also want to make sure you’re pairing appropriate mentors and mentees. Look for common ground over common personalities, like pairing a female VP with a junior associate starting a family.
3. Send them on stretch assignments
Wider business exposure is the name of the game. Stretch assignments offer emerging leaders alternative perspectives and practical skills they may not otherwise develop in the everyday flow of work.
This practice works because it gets learners problem solving for real business challenges. The value add is twofold.
- Self reflection is baked into the process. A research project that requires cross-function collaboration can help an employee compare and contrast their strengths and weaknesses.
- Organisations can address present and future issues, meaning productivity isn’t stagnant while the employee is “away” from their regular duties.
Avoiding cultural hurdles
If you’re truly making for more agile career development, then stretch assignments should be available for all employees. Fairly including women and BIPOC employees will only diversify and strengthen your leadership bench in the long run.
Equitable opportunities are also pertinent when you consider that emerging leaders are, by definition, still emerging. Sometimes a challenge is what’s needed to unlock potential.
4. Create capability development plans
If you’re seeking to develop specific capabilities in emerging leaders, it’s best to keep everyone accountable to progression.
A learning management system with capability mapping functionality allows you to assign content to certain capabilities and levels of proficiency. This gives L&D better oversight of development in line with talent needs, so that emerging leaders may be spotlighted for succession or promotion where necessary.
Avoiding cultural hurdles
An emerging leaders program should be impactful for employees—that is, they should realise immediate positive results from training as much as long term career progression. An emerging leader program should address clear capability gaps in a way to affects an employees’ day to day. An added benefit is that emerging leaders feel confident assuming a leadership role, having already practiced for the position.
From local government and small business to large enterprise, the emerging leader is key asset for organisational success. They are your future leaders, well-placed to act as change agents and influencers before assuming formal responsibilities.
Encouraging managers to spotlight, mentor and challenge high achievers in their teams gives L&D a sense of who’s early in their leadership journey. From there, it’s only a matter of creating pathways through an emerging leaders program for them to realise the capabilities needed in your leadership ranks.
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