Building a Leadership Development Pipeline


What Is Leadership Development?

Leadership development actively cultivates certain skills in employees that are necessary for effective, productive, trusted leadership. These abilities aren’t something you can sit down and absorb in a one-off class or seminar. Instead, they are values-based skills that require intentional learning and constant practice, such as:

  • Honesty
  • Clarity
  • Integrity
  • Confidence
  • Enthusiasm
  • Creativity
  • Loyalty
  • Competence
  • Positivity
  • Consistency
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Diligence

Strong leaders are necessary to streamline processes, attract and retain the best talent, execute on strategic plans, and generate significant returns on investment. Whether you’re a small business with five employees or an international corporation employing hundreds, leadership development is worth the investment. 

Why Is Leadership Development Important in Business?

Without strong leaders, your business will struggle financially, operationally, and culturally. But where do you find strong leaders? 

The truth is that leaders are often easier to grow than find. Leadership development allows you to grow your current workforce into the strong, effective leaders you need throughout your organization. By investing in leadership development, you can:

  • Improve performance: One study found that every dollar spent on leadership development returned approximately four dollars in value. A Gallup report found that workers led by highly engaged managers are also more likely to be highly engaged in their work. With leadership development, you can strengthen your team’s performance and gain a sizable return on investment.
  • Develop leaders at all levels: Some companies use leadership development exclusively for the C-suite. However, leadership goes far beyond simple titles. There are emerging leaders at every level of your business, regardless of position. By investing in leadership development at all levels, you can decrease turnover and increase engagement.
  • Plan for succession: How many employees on your team would you consider indispensable? Strong leaders know that being considered indispensable is actually an obstacle to overcome, not an achievement to strive for. Instead of trying to become indispensable (and an inevitable bottleneck), strong leaders share knowledge, train others, acknowledge their limits, and have the freedom to step away when necessary, whether for vacation, sick days, parental leave, family emergency, or even new opportunities when the time is right. 

How to Build a Leadership Development Pipeline

With a leadership pipeline model, each section is dependent on the others. If any of these sections of the pipeline “leaks” (i.e., is ineffective), then the entire leadership development process suffers. There are four steps of a leadership development pipeline: recruiting, training, deploying, and reviewing. 

1. Recruiting

Recruiting can be one of the more frustrating parts of leadership development. Instead of working with the employees you already know (and chose for a reason), you have to go out into the wide world and try to find the right fit for your team. 

With so many possibilities and so much pressure, it can be tempting to just put anyone in your open position and hope that you can train them up in leadership later, especially if the position is entry level. But it’s possible to be both effective in your hiring process while still putting a priority on discerning candidates’ leadership abilities and potential, no matter how high up the ladder their position will be. To hire well, make sure to:

  • Know what you’re looking for: Take the time to define the role you’re offering. Know the difference between job requirements and preferences. Build an ideal candidate profile so you can base your eventual decision on more than just a good feeling.
  • Prioritize company fit: A strong leader needs to fit your company culture and resonate with your company values. No matter how competent a candidate is, they will almost always struggle if they’re forced to lead a company they don’t believe in, a process they fundamentally disagree with, or a team they dislike, distrust, or disrespect. 
  • Trust your existing team: Invite your current employees to participate in bringing in new talent. Offer incentives for referrals, and have trusted leaders on your team participate in the interview process so they can evaluate potential candidates.
  • Build a talent pipeline: Many employers get applications from great candidates who aren’t the right fit for a specific position, but who may be a right fit later on. Keep in contact with candidates who show potential for future opportunities. Consider building relationships with local high schools or universities so you can ask for referrals for talented graduates.
  • Identify future leaders: Even the most entry-level employee can one day be a strong leader. Hire with leadership potential in mind, no matter the position.

2. Training

Training is where you develop your people. It covers everything from onboarding to skills training to internal development. Training efforts should help employees:

  • Master necessary skills: Employees should be trained to master their current position.
  • Identify their key strengths: It’s important for workers to learn what their strengths are and how those strengths can apply to multiple positions. For example, a data analyst should be praised not just for completing their latest project, but for being detail-oriented, hardworking, and strategic.
  • Learn leadership skills: Employers need to make leadership a company value and help employees determine what being a leader looks like in their current position. They should also cast a vision for future development and offer clear growth opportunities. 

3. Deploying

Once you’ve trained your team, it’s time to send them out to do the work they were hired to do. However, too many companies simply “wing it” when it comes to deploying their team. They fail to take into consideration team dynamics, role fit, and leadership capacity.

When business owners fail to be intentional with how they deploy their teams, the results can be disastrous. However, an intentional, strategic approach to deployment can increase your chances of achieving your desired business outcomes. When deploying, make sure to:

  • Focus on results: Fostering a culture of leadership development takes time and requires some amount of trial and error. By focusing on results, you can discover your team’s strengths and weaknesses and determine which leadership lessons need more emphasis moving forward.
  • Evaluate team dynamics: Teams of underdeveloped leaders tend to talk and demand more than they listen and adapt. Poorly implemented leadership programs can end up creating groups of single-minded managers who struggle to work together, rather than a collaborative team of true leaders. Keep an eye on team dynamics to make sure your team is on the right track.

4. Reviewing

The final stage of the leadership development pipeline is the review process. Here is where you identify gaps in your team’s day-to-day execution. The insights you uncover as you review regularly will give you the information you need to be more effective in the other three sections of the pipeline. 

By making the necessary adjustments proactively, you will create a more productive, more engaged workforce as well as a growing, profitable company. When reviewing, remember to:

  • Identify gaps: Look for areas in your process that are weak or not covered by your current development pipeline. It’s important to be honest about what’s working and what’s not.
  • Create a feedback culture: Strong leaders take in a variety of perspectives and intentionally solicit feedback, especially from their team.
  • Implement creative solutions: Empower the emerging leaders on your team to come up with solutions and own their implementation.