Three Ways To Ensure Your Leadership Pipeline Stays Robust

As markets gyrate and uncertainty abounds, keeping top talent is more important than ever. Here’s how to do it.

Identifying your strongest candidates for department head, director or other top management positions is tough at the best of times. Now, as the Great Resignation gives way to what appears to be a looming recession, the task will only get harder for CEOs.

Yet there’s an upside to a turbulent economy: It pulls the curtain back on up-and-coming leadership talent. Tumult tends to bring out the best in your most promising people, allowing them to demonstrate their skill and resourcefulness – and allowing you to identify the rising stars.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, now is the ideal time to grow your talent pool. Here’s how:

1. Bring your people back to the office

It won’t be easy. A McKinsey study found that, if given the option to work from home, only 12 percent of U.S. workers would show up each day.

Yet tough times provide an opening. Employees will start re-prioritizing professional stability, rather than casting their eyes afield. They realize this is an all-hands-on-deck moment – and that staying secluded from colleagues isn’t the best way to demonstrate their value.

In-person work is even more important for employers who are trying to identify their next senior executives. It’s hard to gauge talent over a few hours a week via Zoom. You need that personal engagement, the ability to see body language, to observe how they collaborate with others.

This isn’t to say leaders shouldn’t be flexible, especially with employees with young families. But those who recognize the company’s needs tend to be your most committed people. An in-person work environment better allows them to rise to the occasion.

2. Take risks with your best employees

You know the one: The eager, driven employee who comes to your door, asking for more responsibility. Now’s the time to see what they can do. Turbulence creates leaner budgets, slimmer staff, and often more work than your teams can handle.

Let these employees take on special projects or lead a flagging initiative. Send them on client-facing trips and see how they navigate their intricacies. By taking a chance on these enthusiastic employees, you’re utilizing your resources to the max, allowing them to grow — and curbing their desire to look elsewhere. If you’ve always wielded the “people are our most important asset” mantra, this also shows you’re walking the walk, that you have faith in their ability to succeed.

The most committed people will be those raising their hands; your limited resources will go further by investing in their growth. By enabling stars to identify themselves, you’ve hastened your talent search. You’re also doing critical ground in building the next generation of leaders.

At some point, this tough market will abate. You’ll emerge from it with more well-rounded leaders. They will have broadened their skills, built their confidence, proved to themselves that they could chew off more than they thought.

There’s a good chance you will also make headway toward your diversity goals. When meritocracy becomes self-identifying, it has a way of opening the playing field to all comers.

3. Install a cross-functional team approach

In previous decades, companies like IBM and Microsoft grew well-rounded leaders by moving talent from marketing to sales, for example, or posting them in Europe and Asia.

Today’s companies grow at such a pace that most employees are siloed. If they begin in HR, that’s likely where they stay. Your most promising leaders have little idea what the rest of the company is doing.

Enter the cross-functional team. Say you have a major initiative, like a companywide software installation. Here’s your chance to give your brightest people a view of the organization at large.

They’ll be working with IT, finance, and every corner of the operation. They’ll be dealing with big budgets and myriad moving parts. It’s an opportunity to navigate the entire enterprise, to grasp the competing interests and challenges.

Though we may no longer have the time to ferment future leaders like IBM once did, these teams are a way to compensate. After all, the end-goal is to grow a talent pool that will one day compete for the C-suite. That won’t be easy if that pool’s expertise begins and ends with product development or sales.

Equally important: you’ll be demonstrating commitment to your best and brightest. In the hyper-competitive fight for talent, it’s not just money that carries the day. It’s opportunity, growth, the chance to reach one’s full potential.

When we show commitment to our most promising, they’re far more likely to return the favor. Instead of watching your talent pool deplete each year, you begin to stockpile.

According to the Society of Human Resource Management, it can cost as much as 200 percent more to hire a highly trained employee rather than retaining the one you already have. In this tough market, no one has the budget to keep churning through talent or the luxury of one day emerging from it all, only to have to grow that pool anew.

David Kinley is the CEO of Bluenose & Company, a recruiting firm in Toronto.

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