You know your company’s top performers. And of that group, you probably have a pretty good idea which workers have leadership potential. But how can you help those top performers improve their management skills to become true leaders at your company, propelling them beyond individual accomplishments to inspiring others to excel?
How can they become leaders who strive for excellence, share their talents unselfishly and demonstrate leadership behaviors that are truly in service of others?
Looking within your ranks to develop future leaders is a good place to start, especially if you have already been thoughtful and deliberate in terms of strategic talent management as critical to your organization’s success. There is real return on investment to be gained when you invest in hiring and developing the right people. For instance, the average cost of recruiting an outside hire to a leadership position is 1.7 times higher than promoting within. (See, for example, “The Power Within: Why Internal Recruiting & Hiring Are on the Rise,” Time, Aug. 15, 2012, citing Saratoga Institute research.) External hires are paid an average of 18-20 percent more, even though they’re significantly less likely to succeed—outside hires are 61 percent more likely to be fired or laid off than workers promoted internally, according to research from the University of Pennsylvania. (Paper titled “Paying More to Get Less: The Effects of External Hiring Versus Internal Mobility.”)
But it’s more complicated than simply promoting a top performer to a management position. Ask any manager or employee who has worked for a mediocre boss before—the best performers rarely make great leaders. In fact, research from Gallup shows that companies select the wrong candidates for leadership positions 82 percent of the time. That’s because only 1 in 10 people possess the natural talent to be great managers, Gallup says.
Unlike learning new on-the-job tasks, which employees can grasp quickly, management skills take time and training to develop as part of employees’ overall strategic plan. The best organizations know this and put resources and effort into helping top performers develop their leadership skills as they take on more responsibility. Here are five ways to do just that:
- Assign them different jobs
One of the biggest perks of promoting from within is that current employees are already very familiar with your company’s mission, culture and operations. But that doesn’t mean they’re experts on every aspect of your organization.
Give top performers some exposure to different jobs throughout your company, from claims and auditing to marketing. True emerging leaders will welcome the challenge of learning new skills, and they’ll learn a lot about how your company really operates in the process.
- Put them on a formal development plan
Just as employees need to learn different roles to rise within the ranks, they also need to augment their skills—and be self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses. To accelerate this process, work with top performers to create individualized formal development plans, complete with goals, deadlines, and training and development opportunities.
Top performers will like development plans, as they will give them long-term goals to work toward and appease their quench for growth. Additionally, they’ll be able to see a future for themselves with your firm, rather than experience career disillusionment or malaise that could leave them vulnerable to being poached by a competitor. And while this approach requires an upfront time commitment, managers will then have the systems in place to track development and pinpoint exactly when an employee is ready for a promotion, and it will provide economic benefits for the company in terms of increased employee engagement and decreased attrition.
- Give them a problem to solve
It can be difficult for top performers to make the transition from peer to leader of a department or business unit. They have to get used to dishing out assignments, and their former co-workers have to get used to accepting those tasks from a former peer. You can ease this transition by giving top performers a problem to solve and a team to help solve it.
Looking to revamp your social media presence or improve predictive analysis models? Challenge your top performers to use an approach that will also help them, in turn, identify other top performers, including putting together a team to work on the problem. Giving top performers a problem to solve will also help with another key area where they often struggle: delegating.
- Teach them to inspire
Great employees excel at improving their own performance. Great leaders excel at inspiring others to improve. The ability to motivate and inspire is often one of the last skills that up-and-coming leaders focus on, yet it’s also one of the most essential.
Give future leaders a chance to get in front of people and inspire them by leading a training session or giving a presentation. They’ll quickly see the soft skills needed to motivate others are as challenging as any technical skill they’ve mastered during their careers. The more they exercise this skill, the more comfortable they’ll become with it, and they’ll inspire others to see that this skill is “doable” and not one to be feared.
- Let (some) top performers fail
Make sure your organization is structured to reward top performers who don’t want to be managers. Too often people take on a leadership role that includes managing people because that’s the only way for them to get that pay bump or increased responsibility.
You’ll want to concentrate your efforts and resources on encouraging top performers who are interested in becoming leaders at your organization. So be willing to innovate how you reward and structure your leadership hierarchy. Some of the best Fortune 500 CEOs got to where they are today and are able to stay there because they have support staff to which they can delegate certain responsibilities that they simply aren’t good at. Not everyone can bat 1,000!
BONUS: This should go without saying, but enrolling top performers in informal or formal training programs, either through your organization or at an outside one, can exponentially accelerate their leadership progression. Critical skills like interviewing, coaching and delegating effectively aren’t inherent, and organizations put their top performers at a disservice by assuming these traits are instinctive or easily learned. There are many different training options available, and even something as simple as on-site strength testing and role playing can make a big difference.