March 2015

Six Steps to Growing Your Next Generation of Leaders

By Ed Ruggero

I once heard a team leader, Todd, ask his direct reports, "How many of you have someone ready to step up today if you get hit by the proverbial bus?" Eight of nine people raised a hand. Then he asked, "How many have two people ready for the next level?" This time, only one woman raised a hand.

"Making the organization better," Todd said, "isn't just about running the business today, and it's not just about improving our systems and processes. You've got to build the next generation of leaders, too. In fact, that's one of your critical responsibilities, especially if we're going to grow the company."

What does this leader development look like? Lots of executives who have great ideas have not taken the time to pull them into a coherent plan; they have not articulated a systematic method. Employees are responsible for their own career tracks, of course, but most would rather work for someone who can contribute to the employee's development and align it with the organization's success.

I've seen a number of leader development models over the years, but I'm always drawn back to this simple framework, which works across a wide range of businesses and organizations. US Army Colonel (Retired) Scott Snook, then a professor in West Point's leadership department and now at Harvard Business School, shared this with me while I was writing Duty First: West Point and the Making of American Leaders.

The mission of West Point, the US Military Academy, is to develop "leaders of character" for service to the nation. Graduates have been successful in the Army as well as in a range of endeavors outside of the service. Of course, West Point is a 47-month, fully immersive experience. Still, the beauty of this model is that it can apply in almost any setting; does not require tremendous resources; and can produce immediate, if incremental, results.

Select. Not everyone wants to be a leader. Among those who do, there are probably some who have demonstrated potential, but don't ignore the late-bloomers or the naturally reticent. Not all great leaders start out that way.

Challenge. We learn when we're outside of our comfort zone. Challenges must be stretch—but not impossible—goals. If I, as the leader developer, am giving you tasks that seem hard, you should know they're part of a plan. You should also have permission to and be willing to challenge me. Talk to me about where your comfort zone ends and your panic zone begins.

Assess. As your mentor, I've got to let you know how you're performing against some standard, and the metrics should be fair and transparent.

Coach. This takes time, patience and imagination. I've got to think about how we can best use your assessment to help you improve.

Reflect. These lessons take time to sink in. Being able to talk openly with a mentor and with others going through the experience helps developing leaders process the learning.

Freedom to Fail. Every leader I've worked with acknowledges that failures are critical to learning. No one will try anything new if the last guy got his head chopped off for a mistake. If I'm managing your development I must give you some room to fail while ensuring that any mistake you make will not sink the whole organization. I expect you'll make mistakes, and I expect you'll learn from them.

Ed Ruggero runs The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, in which executives visit the Civil War battlefield to learn leadership lessons that apply today. Ed also leads experiential learning visits to Normandy, Lexington & Concord and to Valley Forge.