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Developing leaders doesn’t just happen – you need a plan

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The American workplace now has four generations – a rare moment in our nation's history.

These generations span the millennials, just now going to work, to the baby boomers, those born from about 1946-1964 – many of whom are preparing for retirement.

Many businesses face the prospect of a large number of baby boomers retiring, and, with that, a large number of senior leaders going with them.

What is a business leader or human resources professional to do? How can you replace them?

Replacing leaders generally occurs in two ways, from outside the organization or building future leaders from within.

You can recruit and hire from outside. Many organizations do this, hiring talent from other companies in the same field or even from outside the field.

This can be good because these people often bring in new ideas and perspectives.

But it also often causes strife from longtime veterans of the company. Plus, sometimes there are not enough people from outside to fill the empty positions.

A better solution may be to build talent from the bench of existing people in your organization and then foster and nurture that talent. This is called building a talent pipeline.

Developing a pipeline makes great sense for a variety of reasons, especially because people in your organization already are known by their peers. They also understand the company vision and generally share the same goals as the organization.

You understand their strengths and what they bring to the organization. We often refer to these people as “high potentials.”

Developing a leadership pipeline is not merely promoting from within or assigning someone to fill a spot when another person retires.

Building a leadership pipeline requires systematically matching strengths and career aspirations of high potentials with leadership requirements, and then developing training to teach the employee new skills and competencies.

Finally, match them with mentors – people identified as organizational leaders – to encourage, train and assist the high potentials.

There are key steps to nurture and encourage high potentials.


The only way people grow and learn new skills is to give them challenging assignments within their job duties, yet different enough to help them learn new skills and grow professionally.

This will help them develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. The tasks are designed to push participants past their skill level.

Allow them to fail. Give them permission to try and not succeed. Do not necessarily punish failure, but use it as a learning tool to help them grow and gain confidence.


First-hand knowledge of different functions and departments in the organization is a valuable tool in developing expertise. It also ensures that leaders can fill in and assist if a need arises.

Another advantage is when people work with new departments, they can bring an outside perspective on tasks, duties and assignments to foster creativity and new ways of thinking – often without causing the disruption that someone from outside the organization can bring.


Create a plan with specific and measurable goals tied to their new responsibilities. These goals should be challenging, but possible. You want to push, not punish.

These development discussions can be integrated into the annual evaluation process as high potentials advance in the organization. Provide feedback at regular intervals. Revisit the action plan monthly, if possible.


Many companies fail in grooming high potentials by not providing adequate guidance in their transition to leadership.

High potentials should be matched with a senior leader/mentor to work with them and be their guide in their growth.

The mentoring relationship should have clear guidelines, timelines and processes that correlate to the development action plan of your high potentials.

It makes great business sense to grow future leaders. Whether you do it through outside search committees or a talent pipeline, all organizations will face this struggle as more baby boomers retire.

Developing an internal talent pipeline will allow organizations to embrace and nurture future leaders.

By creating a plan for growth and development of high potentials, you ensure they are better prepared to face organizational challenges now and in the future – and to take up the mantle of leadership to allow continued business success.

Tom Bux is the director of the Center for Leadership and Workforce Development (workforce.lccc.edu) at Lehigh Carbon Community College, Schnecksville. He can be reached at tbux@lccc.edu.

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