Article: The importance of developing second-line leaders

Leadership Development

The importance of developing second-line leaders

Developing second-line leaders is paramount for organisational continuity, growth, resilience, and for ensuring a robust leadership pipeline.
The importance of developing second-line leaders

In his book "Ogilvy on Advertising," David Ogilvy describes how he built his ad firm into a global giant, emphasising the importance of recruiting exceptional people. Ogilvy illustrated this with a unique tradition: when someone was appointed head of an office in the Ogilvy & Mather chain, he sent them a Matrioshka doll from Gorky. If they were curious to open it down to the smallest doll, they would find this message: "If each of us hires people smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

Developing second-line leaders is essential not only for the current success of an organisation but also for its long-term viability and resilience. Investing in their growth and empowerment lays the foundation for a strong and sustainable leadership pipeline that will drive the organisation forward in the coming years.

Second-line leaders are crucial in maintaining continuity, driving growth, and fostering a positive work culture. They often bridge senior leadership and frontline employees, translating strategic objectives into actionable plans and ensuring effective execution.

By nurturing a pool of talented leaders at various levels, organisations build bench strength, ensuring they are well-equipped to adapt to changing circumstances, navigate challenges, and capitalize on opportunities. This approach enhances organisational agility and resilience, positioning the company for sustained success.

Developing second-line leaders helps your business unit or function succeed at a whole new level: When your teams know that leadership development is a priority, they start preparing for future roles. The top talent will cultivate their skills and equip themselves for leadership positions, enhancing overall team performance. As the cascading effect builds, this proactive development has a multiplicative impact, especially if competition within the team remains healthy.

It's also important for your personal growth as a leader: The most fulfilling aspect is the impact on yourself. Measuring your leadership success by contribution, attribution, and legacy, developing capable successors fulfils all three criteria. It ensures you contribute effectively, gain recognition for building strong teams, and leave a lasting legacy through the leaders you've developed.

After all, the pathway to effective leadership passes through the Self!

How to develop second-line of leaders?

Leaders often excuse their lack of succession planning by claiming their organisation doesn’t have a formal program. However, conviction and passion for developing others can be more effective than structured programs and processes. Even well-designed talent programs can fall short if leaders don't own them or believe in their value.
Leading by example is the key, especially when policies and processes are still being established. As a leader, you can set a precedent that becomes the foundation for future initiatives. To begin, you may practice the following:

Develop key skills, competencies, & behaviours for second-line leaders

It starts with the self. Begin with delegation without abdication or evasion of accountability. This skill is a cornerstone of effective leadership, involving the entrusting of responsibilities to others while empowering them to assume ownership and make informed decisions.

This approach encourages second-line leaders to delegate and empower their teams, foster collaboration, and create a culture of accountability and ownership. Effective leadership isn't just about individual performance; it's about enabling others to thrive and reach their full potential.

Coach your second-line leaders on the power of focus and prioritisation

Encourage second-line leaders to drive innovation and lead change initiatives within their areas of responsibility. Promote a growth mindset and the willingness to challenge boundaries. Emphasise the importance of second-line leaders in shaping and maintaining a positive organisational culture. Encourage them to be role models for their teams, embodying the values and principles that define the organization's identity.

Build leadership development experiences

Organisations may not always have the space and resources to run structured Leadership Development Programs. Therefore, it's crucial to create Leadership Development Experiences. This can be achieved by:

  • Giving people opportunities to lead key transformation projects. For example, have your Commercial Functions HRBP lead a large-scale Go-To-Market Sales Transformation Project, or your Trade Marketing Head represent the Sales Function in an acquisition bid.
  • Exposing your second-line leaders to challenging assignments with tight deadlines. These high-stakes situations bring out the best in talented individuals and build their confidence.
  • Allowing your second-line leaders to manage operations in your absence, providing them with valuable experience.
  • Include experiences such as speaking opportunities, writing articles, participating in external roundtables, or going on learning tours to other organisations.
  • Encouraging participation in external assessments and competitions with cross-industry peers, such as '40 under 40 programs. These not only build confidence but also provide external validation that you are investing in the right talent for succession.

Mentoring and coaching for second-line leaders

Having an internal mentor or an external coach are great intervention, and if there is a combination of both then there’s nothing better. The internal mentor should be someone other than you, i.e. Functional or Business Unit Director. It could also be either the skip level manager or another Functional Director who him/herself has demonstrated the skills, competencies & behaviours mentioned above.

Considerations and cautionary notes

Win-loose competition!

As the hierarchy pyramid narrows at the top, the pool of opportunities shrinks, leading to heightened competition within teams. It's common for talented individuals to depart when passed over for advancement opportunities.

While it's disheartening to witness skilled employees leave, it's a natural aspect of career progression and organizational evolution. If departing talent secures the next-level role elsewhere, it signifies successful leadership. Ultimately, if everyone benefits, the leader's efforts are validated.

Maintain connections with departed talent and offer support as they progress in their careers, even as others assume your current role. Keep them on your radar for potential future collaborations or opportunities.

Failure to enable succession at the right time

Timing is critical in succession planning. Promoting someone too early risks placing them in a role they're unprepared for, while delaying promotions may result in losing talented individuals to other organizations when they're at their peak readiness.

This lack of strategic timing can disrupt continuity and stability within the organization and jeopardize the transfer of institutional knowledge and expertise. Without a prepared successor, sudden departures of key leaders can leave significant gaps in leadership.

Moreover, ineffective succession planning can tarnish the organisation's reputation, especially if leadership transitions are chaotic or contentious. This can erode trust among investors, customers, and partners, leading to decreased confidence and potential financial repercussions. 

Getting caught in programs and processes!

Getting entangled in processes and program management related to succession planning while missing the opportunity to groom & appoint a successor when the time comes, is like missing the wood for the trees. 

Aligning individuals' aspirations with business requirements is a tough task. Nonetheless, it's essential to be prepared to meet demand when it arises and ensure that the talent inventory remains relevant, neither excessively abundant nor past its prime. 

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Topics: Leadership Development, Leadership, Leadership Solutions

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