Career Development / Industrial Training / Leadership Skills / Workforce Development

How to develop future leaders now

Your company's future will depend on how effectively you train talent today.

By Billy Hamilton, Motion Industries

It’s no secret that the people who make up the largest generation in U.S. history, commonly known as the Baby Boomers, have been retiring at a furious pace for several years. At other points since the Industrial Revolution began, retirements have not posed a huge problem for most companies, but there are three aspects of this era that are making this particular situation far more difficult to solve.

First, the largest generation in history was followed by a very small generation, commonly referred to as Generation X. Because Gen X is so small, there are not enough people with the traditionally accepted years of experience ready to fill the positions vacated by all of the boomers walking out the door to retirement. Second, individuals in the following generation, commonly referred to as Millennials, behave much differently than those in the preceding two generations. Last, but certainly not least, is the fact that we are in a transition from the end of the traditional IT-systems era to the industrial internet of things (IIoT) era – one in which many routine tasks previously performed by humans will disappear.

While these facts make the task of developing future leaders harder and more critical than ever, they also create great opportunities – so let’s now examine some fairly simple ideas you can use with your future leaders.

Training future leaders was much easier for most companies before the rate of change began to accelerate. In many small- and midsize traditional manufacturing environments, the normal route for developing a front-line leader began with identifying a production-line employee who had above-average output and people skills. This person was first promoted into a lead position, and then, with time, he or she migrated into a formal supervisor position. If the individual continued to grow as a formal supervisor, a path opened into positions of larger scope and responsibility over time.

Larger companies also utilized formal management programs and placed recent college graduates in front-line supervision positions to learn how the plant operated before they migrated into larger roles. However, with the large number of people currently retiring, we no longer have the luxury of time on our side to apply the traditional front line-leadership development method.

Start the process early


With time for development compressed, the first key to preparing future leaders is to start the process earlier than ever before. Identify degree tracks at specific universities that produce well-rounded graduates, and actively partner with those schools to heavily recruit for open positions.

Along a concurrent path, alter your performance management process to identify high-potential employees you already have who might be looking to move up in the organization. Create rotational positions for both of these groups that provide breadth in addition to depth in a particular area of your company. Follow through with rotations to ensure that everyone can complete the process. It is all too easy when someone resonates strongly with a certain position to leave that person in place. Doing so defeats the purpose of the program: The goal is to create a talent pool of ready candidates who will compete for larger positions as they arise. The people in the program should know that this is the purpose of the effort, as it will help drive their behavior to perform well. It will also make the program more attractive to recent college graduates.

Define the path of advancement


In conjunction with informing employees of the program’s goal, the second step of a successful program is to lay out a defined path of advancement. Members of the millennial generation have, for the most part, led highly regimented lives. Much of their youth was centered on structured activities, such as music lessons, tutoring, play dates, and organized sports, as opposed to baby boomers, who grew up in a less-structured environment.

Millennials were also highly coached through high school in preparation for college. In many school systems across the country, checklists were handed out to students instructing them on what they needed to do to increase their odds of getting into their preferred school. The checklists included items such as joining clubs, performing recordable charitable activities, and writing entrance essays in a particular fashion.

This practice continued into college, with universities coaching students on what they needed to do to increase their odds of being selected for employment by the companies they hoped to work for. Many universities created student organizations specific to a field of study to help develop relationships with potential employers. The student organizations typically host events with hiring companies and provide services to students to teach them how to interview, how to build a resume, and the key items that employers look for, such as internships, charitable activities, and high grade-point averages.

Building relationships with these types of organizations is what I referred to earlier in this article for recruiting purposes. Once young employees understand your preferred path for them to be successful, they will follow through and work to ensure that they stay on it. A common mistake to avoid in charting a career path is setting timelines for each stage of the journey without being confident you can follow through with the commitment. Leave yourself flexibility to adjust accordingly.

Provide the resources


The final step I recommend for a successful development program is to make sure to provide necessary resources for those program participants. Both those who aspire to be leaders and those who are teaching future leaders need access to additional resources such as mentors, current industry publications, career coaches, training resources, and senior leadership. Never underestimate the impact of a lunch-and-learn or a quick visit to a training session from a senior leader. A few minutes of a senior leader’s time goes a long way with those engaged in development. The time spent validates the process and provides a sense of pride for those in the program. The best part is that quick visits are inexpensive, so they won’t hurt the budget.

Plan, and plan early


The key to a leadership development program is to have a plan. Once you have a plan, execute it; monitor it; and make changes to improve it as needed. Failure to spend time or money on the front end of this process will only result in higher costs in the long run, as finding and retaining talent developed by someone else is difficult and expensive.