Creating Future Leaders – How Do Businesses Identify and Develop Their People
Succession planning is essential for any business intent on long term survival and is critical to ensure the future leadership of the organisation. That’s why ILM set out to find how businesses identify and develop the people who will become their future leaders, and what potential future leaders could do to improve their career prospects. Whether the aim is to develop potential leaders for the organisation internally, or to recruit the most talented external candidates to nurture and promote, in an increasingly competitive world, the search, retention and development of the leaders of tomorrow is complex and challenging.
The ILM conducted in-depth interviews with senior HR professionals in predominantly large corporate organisations and consulting firms. The sample size was large enough to provide a breadth of coverage, while the approach ensured a richness and depth of response which meant that the subtleties of the respondents’ different approaches were captured.
The Most Important Traits for Future Leaders
1. Leadership traits
Respondents emphasised a distinct set of personal characteristics that future leaders need to possess. These were principally in the relationship and inter-personal domain – they sought people who are:-
- inspirational people;
- emotionally intelligent;
- natural leaders and communicators; and
- driven and ambitious.
The ability to motivate (36%), emotional intelligence (34%) and being a natural leader (24%) were the most important characteristics when recruiting senior leaders.What’s more, they emphasised that future leaders needed to demonstrate a broad mix of all these characteristics if they were to be able to progress to the top. Strengths in one area do not compensate for weaknesses elsewhere.
2. Skills and knowledge
Future leaders also need a range of skills and knowledge to support their personal characteristics. These fall into three main strands. The first, cited by over half of respondents (56%), is appropriate technical and professional skills in relevant areas like law, accounting or engineering.
The second strand comprises commercial and financial skills (54%), so that future leaders understand how business works and can demonstrate high levels of business acumen. The third strand largely supports the personal characteristics the respondents identified, and includes skills in people management and development (26%), communication (24%), coaching and feedback (20%), and team management skills (20%).
3. Education and Training
Although it is expected that future leaders will have a good standard of education (a first degree is generally taken as a given, but the right personal qualities trump any gaps in the educational record), most businesses see it as their responsibility to develop leadership and management abilities.
What’s more, they want training that will transfer into improved performance, knowing about leadership and management isn’t enough – future leaders have to be able to put what they know into practice.
4. Depth of Experience
The right mix of personal characteristics supported by the appropriate skills and knowledge are necessary but not sufficient – those young managers keen to advance their careers to the top of business also need to ensure that they have a broad range of experience.This experience should encompass different roles and, where appropriate, different industries.
What’s more, future leaders need to show that they can cope with pressure and failure with nearly a quarter (24%) of respondents stressing the importance of being able to deal with difficulties and challenges. A path of unbroken success suggests that they haven’t really been tested.
When asked about the role of business schools and MBAs in developing future leaders, half of respondents were neutral about the effectiveness of business schools, while 36% thought they were effective. While they recognise that business schools had some strengths, their major weakness was that they do not have that deep understanding of the business and its particular characteristics that they looked for in training providers. These perceptions encourage them to see business schools as more relevant to the needs of individuals rather than for businesses seeking to build their future leadership capacity.
There is a disconnect between what is learnt in business schools and the workplace. Business is focused on creating potential future leaders who can cope with the realities of the workplace. From their perspective, an MBA demonstrates that the person has the intellectual capacity to lead, but not that they have the actual ability to do so.