Accelerating the Leadership Learning Curve for Tomorrow’s Leaders

June 2021 | By Kevin Jones

It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark. — Howard Ruff

When’s the right time to change the oil in your car? When’s the right time to buy insurance, or to improve your diet? The “right” time is before there is a need. Timing really is everything.

For organizations, when’s the right time to begin developing tomorrow’s leaders? In time-starved organizations, leadership is constantly faced with tradeoff and prioritization issues, but one thing that should be at the top of their priority list is developing tomorrow’s leaders, today.

leadership-working-with-his-employee-picture-id1189302019Tomorrow’s leaders often enter the workforce as individual contributors. They’ve studied hard and they’re ready to apply the theories and lessons they’ve learned. They do well with this; they’re in their comfort zone. But what happens when their organizations need them to step forward and lead others?

Most people haven’t had formal education in leadership principles. They’ve learned through random opportunities, responding as situations come up. However, situations that provide opportunities to approximate critical leadership skills rarely occur by chance. So, while tomorrow’s leaders are adding value now in their individual contributor roles, today’s senior leaders are in a good position to develop the next generation of leaders and set them up for long-term success.

For senior leaders, it’s as simple as arranging opportunities for tomorrow’s leaders to take the lead role on projects where they can provide direction, develop skills in others, remove barriers, allocate resources, and motivate their team members with feedback and coaching. All of these immersion experiences will help develop foundational skills for future roles.

Companies can grow organizational capacity in the future by intentionally focusing on the growth and development of tomorrow’s leaders’ individual capabilities now, in the present moment. Here’s how to start:

Prioritize leadership skills early in the career path

The development of leadership skills early in the careers of tomorrow’s leaders should be a priority. Leader development is like investing. In financial investments, trying to “time the market” is a risky approach. Most experts recommend investing for the long term, making repeated incremental deposits and watching your balance build over time, allowing you to reap the rewards in the years to come.

This philosophy is used by many successful organizations across industries. Consider the example of how the English soccer league (or football, if you insist) approaches player development.

In many English League teams, talented youth players practice alongside seasoned professionals to see how they fare; some flourish, but some need more time to develop. They’ve found that by starting serious training early, these young players develop more quickly, becoming more well-rounded and better prepared to face top-tier competition and demanding coaching.

No organization wants to have a deficit in leadership skills when they are so sorely needed. As experienced leaders retire and take their well-earned skillsets with them, a leadership gap often is left behind. It’s a forward-thinking investment to begin preparing tomorrow’s leaders now, ensuring they’re ready to fill that gap at the moment they’re needed.

Arrange skill development opportunities

Leadership skills are not always taught, either formally or informally. Most people learn by doing, and some call this “drinking out of a fire hose.” Unfortunately, this is not the best way to prepare leaders. An organization that values the continuity of leadership will intentionally create opportunities for tomorrow’s leaders to hone their skills before the full pressure of the job exists.

A collegiate football team is an example of an organization that is continuously building, losing, and replacing leaders. In the glory days of Florida State football, during a 14-year streak of finishing within the top-five ranked teams, they often “won” in the fourth quarter. One of the biggest contributing factors was having their 3rd and 4th string teams play—at least for a little while—in every single game. 

This approach did two things: it gave these younger players a ton of experience throughout the season—not just at the end of the season—and so, in any one game, when other teams’ players were beat up, tired, injured, and had to play inexperienced backups, FSU could dominate with experienced players. 

The lesson we take from this: Systematically preparing tomorrow’s leaders by arranging opportunities for stretch assignments will yield a competitive advantage. Of course, we want these leaders to be successful as their skills progress. We need not throw them to the wolves, in an unsolvable situation, but rather set them up for a series of small wins. They don’t have to play the entire game or take on an entire project. The FSU model shows that if you give them a play or two, or perhaps even a whole quarter, their skills will grow rapidly. What’s most important is that they get in the game.

Establish small steps that lead to solid leadership skills

Like all complex skills, people benefit from learning over time with small steps, feedback, and reinforcement. There is a process in behavioral science called shaping. Essentially, shaping means laying out small steps toward a goal and arranging reinforcement for progress and improvement.

When we engineer these opportunities for tomorrow’s leaders, we must be intentional and supportive about developing their capabilities. We put them in situations where they can take small steps successfully. Maybe they begin with a presentation, or they just lead a meeting. They aren’t responsible for the full outcome of a situation but need only to rise to their portion.

To ensure their success, today’s leaders should help them plan and prepare, then follow-up afterward. Ask for their thoughts on what worked, and what didn’t. Provide objective feedback from your perspective and positively reinforce what they did well and provide coaching about what they could do even better.

Conduct deliberate practice

Practice becomes deliberate practice when attention is focused on the specific goal of improving performance. During deliberate practice, an individual is paying close attention to particular aspects of the task they are working on, breaking down the task into small chunks, and continuously making small adjustments in their leadership behaviors. It’s not just practice, it’s practice with the intent to improve.

Feedback is the unsung hero of deliberate practice. If we assist tomorrow’s leaders in breaking down tasks into measurable behaviors, we’re then able to provide objective feedback on progress—or the lack thereof. Focused practice on component skills with deliberate intention for improvement—paired with consistent feedback—will help tomorrow’s leaders acquire these skills more rapidly.

Spending the time and effort now to help tomorrow’s leaders establish new behaviors will prepare them to be successful when they become accountable. Arranging opportunities to practice, providing feedback, and helping tomorrow’s leaders be successful in small efforts today, will provide a foundation to support the organization’s success when it’s necessary for these leaders to step up.

Want to know more about how leaders can help to prepare tomorrows leaders? View these posts:

How Leaders Develop Next-Generation Leaders: 5 Critical Capabilities (Part 1 of 3) 

How Leaders Develop Next-Generation Leaders: A CHRO Solves A Leadership Deficit (Part 2 of 3) 

How Leaders Develop Next-Generation Leaders: Expanding Your Leadership Pipeline (Part 3 of 3) 


Coauthored by: Kevin Jones and Ken Wagner, Ph.D.

Kevin Jones uses his background in human services and behavioral research to help organizations address critical business issues that impact their bottom line. His expertise in organizational behavior management, change management, and job and workforce analysis, has helped clients achieve remarkable results in industries such as oil & gas, federal agencies, healthcare, and nonprofit.

Ken Wagner, Ph.D. translates human potential into business success to drive profitability, operational excellence, employee engagement, and leader performance. His deep subject matter expertise in leader development, behavioral science, motivation, learning, and systems analysis has given him highly diverse understanding across a broad spectrum of private and public industries ranging from complex, multinational organizations to specialized boutique companies, in more than 20 countries, across 6 continents.

Topics: Leadership

Kevin Jones

Written by Kevin Jones