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How to develop graduate employees into the leaders of tomorrow

With the right training and development, today’s graduates will be the business leaders of tomorrow. Samantha Caine, managing director at Business Linked Teams, explains how this metamorphosis can take shape.
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Leadership in the business world is increasingly defined as the ability to enable other people to achieve extraordinary results. If we focus on leadership being about leading people then not all graduates will aspire to do this.

In many cases, graduates will have studied a particular subject because they are passionate about it and may prefer to become experts in their chosen field without the responsibility for developing or managing other people – I guess you could call them technical experts.

The challenge for businesses is to be able to analyse individual capability so that they can identify those that have true leadership potential versus those who are better placed to be technical experts and to create appropriate personal and professional development paths for each of them.

Individuals placed on the leadership journey need to be there because they want to be there. They must be motivated to develop themselves and to engage in the process. Once this is the case, organisations need to establish the development “gap” – what skills do they need to develop and to what level, and where are they now in relation to them?

Many organisations have tools such as 360 reports and competency matrixes to help keep the process objective. These are best used in conjunction with input and support from the individual’s line manager, peers, stakeholders and HR support.

Recognising and developing leadership skills

There are many skills needed in order to become a competent leader, but in the early days, useful indicators are the ability to communicate well with people from all levels of the organisation and the desire to see other people succeed for themselves.

Recognition of the need to create a compelling vision for other people to follow is another key indicator, as is having an open mind and the ability to act on feedback with the aim of achieving constant improvement.

Over time, businesses have changed to become leaner in order to compete globally. There has been concentrated effort to strip out as many layers of management as possible, meaning leaders nowadays are likely to have teams in which individual experiences greater autonomy. This has changed the required skillset of a leader to the point where they must become increasingly focused on enabling other people.

Leaders today cannot simply rely on a “tell” mentality – they must be prepared to collaborate with their teams and to inspire and coach the people within those teams to work towards specific goals, not because they have to, but because they want to.

Nurturing a natural leader

There are various elements to nurturing graduates into future leaders. You can begin by creating a leadership development program that supports the technical skills and knowledge that graduates have already developed during their studies.

But this should also focus on developing their “soft skills” – coaching skills, communication skills, the ability to delegate, developing a compelling vision, setting stretching and inspirational performance goals, and managing change.

It’s also important to put a mentoring program into place. This entails finding successful people in the organisation and utilising them to help to develop the leadership capabilities of the graduates. Further development can be enabled by creating jobs and assignments where graduates can learn their leadership skills on the job, perhaps in partnership with an existing manager who can also be a safe pair of hands.

Managers must be made to recognise the fact that many of today’s graduates are tomorrow’s leaders and that they have a responsibility to assist in the development of those graduates on their journey towards future leadership.

Graduate development isn’t a new thing and most people are familiar with the reasons why organisations need a talented pool of graduates both in terms of delivering against today’s business objectives and in terms of succession planning for the future.

The key is to make sure that the importance of graduate development is clearly communicated and aligned to business needs and that graduates are supported in such a way that they are able to contribute to the business in a pragmatic, positive way and that they are integrated fully into the teams in which they work.

Samantha Caine is managing director at Business Linked Teams.

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