Developing Executive Leadership: How to Spot and Nurture Executive Potential

By Mitch Wienick, President, Kelleher Associates

How are decisions really made in your organization? How does company culture influence business choices? What does accountability mean in your company’s culture? The answers to these questions might become clear in time, but the bright young employees in your ranks are certainly not going to absorb them overnight, which is why the leaders your organization requires in the future – in five years, 10 years or more – need to be on hand today absorbing its values, culture, and business and decision-making processes.

Unfortunately, many U.S. businesses today stint on leadership development. They have allowed employees with deep knowledge and understanding to retire without passing along their expertise. Often, faced with an executive position vacancy, these companies consider external candidates alongside less trained and prepared internal ones. But identifying and developing executive leadership talent is an important aspect of strategic business planning. The most effective means to do this is through a formal coaching and development program that systematically provides opportunities to identify and nurture talent.

Here are some key ideas for you to consider to strengthen future executive leadership:

1. Understand the capabilities and competencies needed for your organization’s long-term success. Job descriptions and employee evaluation forms may be a helpful place to start but you’ll need to go deeper. Make sure your list includes functional, technical, interpersonal, and business capabilities, as well as the ability to incorporate critical new information and data.

2. Recruit for executive leadership potential. Look for quick learners who are collaborative and have a strong work ethic, discipline, dedication to task, and a goal orientation. Other important characteristics include the ability to communicate effectively, an analytical approach, resiliency, and the determination to overcome obstacles.

3. Coach current managers and executives to identify talented team members, especially those who have an inherent drive that energizes others. Give these promising employees a variety of experiences by exposing them to challenges and opportunities in a variety of functions, regions and business units of your organization. These meaningful and substantial experiences genuinely help prepare them for senior leadership positions.

4. Assign mentors to formally work with these high potential future leaders. Your mentors need to model the leadership traits that your company values, such as:

  • Building trust and credibility
  • Inspiring a shared vision of a successful future
  • Constructively challenging the status quo
  • Crediting others
  • Acting decisively

Moreover, mentors can naturally offer guidance to their younger associates throughout their careers. Choose mentors who are articulate and engaged, because it falls to them to explain how the organization really works and how to motivate and inspire people.

If your potential mentors need some inspiration, they might read the description of legendary House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s mentoring of the ambitious Lyndon B. Johnson, beautifully detailed in Robert Caro’s 1982 book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power.

5. Evaluate frequently. Nurture the best employees with the most potential. Provide executive coaching to help those strong contributors fill gaps in their knowledge and experience.

6. Keep filling the pipeline. Give current leaders the responsibility for identifying, developing, nurturing and promoting new leaders. Institutionalize this responsibility by assigning them the task of recruiting new talent from wherever available, such as business schools, the military, and other companies.

As businesses begin to invest in talent development, an essential part of that investment should be devoted to filling the executive leadership pipeline. Strong leaders need years to develop the competencies and capabilities that provide the confidence, experience, and skill to make decisions in times of difficulty or opportunity.