My research amongst over 40 HR and business leaders, as well as millennials, has identified seven key developmental experiences that are common to the CVs of leaders who understand, and are successful in, a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.
Breadth of experience, rather than expertise honed in one area, is key. Only if a promising employee has worked through a range of challenges will they be able to deal effectively with the complexity of a leadership role today.
Breadth of experience allows an emerging leader to gain an organisation-wide view, flexible leadership and problem-solving style which lets them get up to speed and start delivering results fast in a new environment.
My research showed that these seven key developmental experiences are: international assignments, change management roles, developing something from scratch, managing people, operational roles, turnaround and people management roles.
The more of these roles potential leaders have, the more likely they are to have acquired the skills to lead successfully in an uncertain world. I have explored five of these roles in more depth below.
1. Change management
Organisations must continually realign their processes, culture and direction in response to both internal and external changes. This makes effective change management a vital leadership experience.
Learning about what it takes to get people to overcome resistance to change and adopt a new direction is a vital skill for high-potential employees.
Despite corporate change being necessary for growth and innovation, we often try to get in its way. It’s a phenomenon author Susanne Jacobs seeks to explain.
2. Developing something from scratch
Intrapreneurial activity is important for innovation and growth. Learning how to set up a new team and getting it to work together effectively or creating a new product line and generating a strong revenue stream from it, allows an emerging leader to hone a wide range of leadership skills.
This includes visioning and strategic thinking, influencing and driving results. Starting something from scratch is not only about blue-sky ideas, it’s about turning these ideas into profit.
3. Operational roles
These roles always sit at the core of an organisation and provide an emerging leader with a vital understanding of the day-to-day running of business. Learning how to operate and improve systems and processes that deliver core products or services are key takeaways.
No organisation can survive without the ability to fix problems such as under-performing teams, failing business units or faulty products.
Turnaround projects often require drastic and urgent action and teach an emerging leader how to address the immediate crisis, how to re-establish commitment and trust and how to put in place processes to avoid a similar situation happening again in future.
5. People management
As leaders become more senior, the remit of their roles increases significantly. It is no longer possible to deliver against all expectations alone and knowing how to build, develop and motivate other people to work towards the same goals is a vital leadership skill.
Building a strong team involves several skills such as creating a shared vision, understanding and harnessing the team’s strengths and development areas and creating clear expectations for high-performance delivery.
For organisations wishing to develop their own leadership skills helping high-potential employees gain breadth of experience requires a focus on experiential learning. Learning through stretch assignments, special projects and job rotations must become an integral part of any development approach.
This requires a shift from organising content for structured learning to developing effective processes and policies that support regular role changes and cross-company moves. Furthermore, managers must be prepared to let talented individuals move to other business units or functions.
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