Once a practice has reached a certain size, finding, training, and nurturing the next generation of leaders moves to the top of the list. Failure to nurture next-gen leaders inevitably limits what an organization can become.
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Overcoming our fears
By the time a practice needs a larger leadership team, the owner has already expended tons of effort. And that investment makes it challenging for the founder to delegate aspects of the practice to others. Owners worry that others will mess things up. Furthermore, they are concerned about selecting, training, managing, and nurturing the next-gen leaders, all new skills to develop.
And yet, to grow, the practice needs more leaders doing all that is required. So let’s walk through the various parts of what it takes to find and nurture your next-gen leaders.
1. Finding the right candidates
Generally, the place to begin looking for next-gen leaders is with your current staff. I was constantly scanning for the emergence of natural leaders from within our group. People will follow those who have that innate leadership skill set, and that is what we want to build on.
On the other hand, natural leadership skills are not the whole package. We need those skills but more as well. For example, ask yourself:
- Are they organized? Do they meet deadlines?
- How would they fit with existing leaders?
- Do you trust them? Do you want them in the foxhole with you?
- Are they loyal? Will they stand with you, or will they create factions?
- How do they handle the projections and complaints that always come at leaders?
- Do you want to be in many meetings with them?
- Are they OK with becoming a boss and part of the “machine” or “the Man”?
- Do they have a compatible philosophy of leadership?
You can see from that list that those are a lot of filters to sift through. For that reason, I preferred to promote from within. And yet, promoting from within creates challenges we will discuss later in this post.
For another discussion on this topic, see:
2. Setting up the training
Once that first leader is selected, training commences. How should we set it up in a way that nurtures those next-gen leaders? Typically, the training and nurturance occur during regular leadership meetings. I have written about the structure of meetings I used in these posts:
- How to use meetings to build your workplace culture
- How to redesign your leadership structure as you grow
Our regular leadership meeting schedule included a 9 am to 3 pm “Planning Day” about three times a year. These days allowed us time to think more deeply about various topics. Check out these posts for a good start on a leadership curriculum:
- How to think about the basics of managing leaders
- 7 management principles that excellent, but untrained, managers know
- How to improve workplace culture: Love our people
I also assigned books for my leaders to read from time to time. See this page for some of my favorites. We then spent some time discussing what we read.
3. Developing organizational acceptance of change
Part of nurturing next-gen leaders is setting them up for success. One huge factor is accumulating buy-in and acceptance from those they manage. Getting that buy-in is especially challenging when one promotes from within. Some staff will struggle with the reality that the new leader was a peer yesterday. There are several ways that the existing leaders can set this up correctly.
First, identify those you think might have a hard time with the promotion. Set up a one-on-one meeting with each. The goal of the meeting is to personally and sensitively disclose the plan and explain the decision. Moreover, if you believe they would have liked to be in leadership, you need to address that desire. Explain your decision with honesty and kindness. Furthermore, I always asked them to support the new leader if they could. Sometimes, they struggled, but typically, they did not quit but they might be more disengaged. I was OK with that as long as they found ways to continue with their work and were not undermining the new leader.
Secondly, once I talked with all those who might struggle with the decision, it was time for the general announcement. In short, if I had selected a natural leader respected by their peers and did the prep, the notification was well received.
The payoffs for nurturing next-gen leaders
Some may wonder whether the effort of finding, training, and nurturing the next generation of leaders is worth it. I think it is for several reasons.
First, growth beyond about ten employees is a severe struggle without help. I have discussed this threshold and why it exists in this post: Most hazardous practice size? Ten people.
Second, adding leaders helps existing leaders who, by delegating responsibilities, are more freed up for other considerations. Everyone benefits when leaders have the space for thoughtful leading and managing.
Third, allowing talented staff to lead gives them new personal growth opportunities. And happy team members add strength to the culture.
Fourth, nurturing a next-gen leader may lead to the identification and growth of the next owner of your practice. With the proper nurturance, one of your leaders may be ready for ownership responsibilities when it is time to sell.
And lastly and importantly, nurturing next-gen leaders may make your practice more attractive to a potential purchaser. The new owner does not have to recruit and train from outside the organization with solid leaders in-house. Therefore, there is less chance of disruption.
And the risks of nurturing next-gen leaders?
There are risks, of course. By sharing all you know about your practice, those new leaders may leave and become competitors. Certainly, this happens. And when it does, it hurts deeply. Consequently, we want to do our best in selecting who we bring into leadership.
Each practice will be different, with many possible configurations for getting the work done well. Furthermore, the risk of a leader leaving may argue for adding more leaders who have more minor roles. Then, if one goes, you continue to have a stable of others in the wings who might step up.
And yet, despite our best efforts, sometimes we are betrayed. I have written about these situations in these posts:
- How to overcome employee betrayal: 5 steps to love resiliently
- How to make sense of soured workplace relationships: Attachment injuries
Nevertheless, I believe the benefits outweigh the risks.
And should some of our leaders betray us, we will need to depend on our amassed momentum and goodwill to carry us through those difficult days. To fearfully throttle growth by failing to identify and train that next generation of leaders is to limit our organization’s potential impact on the world–a sad outcome for all.