Most up-and-coming leaders make career moves to increase their prospects for rising to the top levels of their organisation. There is nothing wrong with that. New, higher-level positions typically offer learning, growth and better compensation. But in constantly scanning the horizon, these future leaders are likely to miss seeing powerful growth opportunities much closer to home.
Our research at the Center for Creative Leadership convinces us that leaders, at any time, can take on challenges that will substantially expand their knowledge and skills without a job change; and learning and development professionals can help by encouraging employees to use one of the following three strategies.
1. Reshape current job. Gautam, Director, Marketing Research at an international retail company, and Renu, his colleague in Public Relations, felt they were getting stale in their jobs. They hit upon the idea of trading a couple of projects. Then they sold the idea to their respective bosses, describing how they would learn from experience through their on-the-job development opportunity. In fact, they both learned new skills and gained a wider perspective on their organization and industry.
There are other ways to encourage employees to reshape their job:
- Counsel them to talk to their bosses about picking up a new responsibility -- such as making monthly presentations, managing a client relationship, or preparing a feasibility report. This would be something their boss is ready to delegate and move from his or her plate to theirs.
- Suggest they find an important need that is currently not met. For example, one manager felt that it took too long for new employees in his group to get up to speed. He stepped in, and set up and ran a peer coaching process. By teaching others to be peer coaches, he improved his own coaching skills.
2. Find temporary responsibilities to meet development needs. Employees who are ambitious about developing themselves can take on projects, task forces, and temporary activities, and increase their exposure to new leadership responsibilities for a limited period of time. For example:
- Encourage young managers to raise their hand to run a large multi-site project with a tight deadline. The deadline, coupled with responsibility for critical decisions and the project’s strategic importance and visibility, will increase their decisiveness, ability to work under pressure, and to balance their new responsibility with existing managerial commitments.
- Recommend young managers to project teams that are breaking new ground in the organization, such as opening a new market or installing a new system. The opportunity to lead a new initiative will enhance their ability to think strategically and increase their comfort level with ambiguity.
There are many time-limited tasks that up-and-coming leaders can take on. They can volunteer to manage a high-profile customer or business partner. From this they will learn to deal with accountabilities from multiple directions—from within and outside their organization. Or they can co-lead a project with someone in another function, which will teach them to collaborate across functions or business units and strengthen their ability to influence others. Or they can serve on a team or committee with members from other countries to get international exposure without leaving home.
3. Seek leadership challenges outside the workplace. Many managers have passionate interests outside the workplace. Their passions can be encouraged. As an example, if a young manager joins an environmental group, he or she will have to negotiate with multiple, equally passionate stakeholders—a skill that will be of great benefit in the workplace. Valuable leadership experience is gained by serving in volunteer, social, and professional organizations. Examples to share with those you yourself may want to mentor include:
- Starting something new outside of work—such as a volunteer program at their child’s school or a chapter of a national professional organization.
- Volunteering for a task for a community or professional organization, such as organizing a fund-raiser or representing the group to the media.
Learning and Development managers have a critically important role to play – in supporting and guiding ambitious future leaders so they can be successful after they have grabbed an opportunity. If young managers take on a temporary assignment, they must be guided to talk to their boss about moving lower-priority responsibilities off their plate so they can handle the additional workload and learn to work more efficiently. For instance, they could let go of tasks that could and should be delegated.
Most importantly, help them to look around the organization for seniors who have done the kind of work they are taking on and who are willing to coach them, give them feedback, and point them to other resources in the organization.
Also encourage them to create or join a peer-coaching group or talk to a few trusted colleagues about the skills they are working to improve. A trusted sounding board of one or several people is an invaluable resource. People who are not directly involved with their assignment can help them to objectively assess progress and reflect on their learning.
Ultimately, the clear message to communicate to all employees is that it is in their best interest to take charge of their own learning. This approach will serve them well throughout their careers and in life.