Five Essentials for Developing Leaders Internally

With retention a growing challenge, organizations need to cultivate successful leaders from within. One expert shares what an effective process looks like.

As numerous Great Resignation-era articles will tell you, leaders are feeling increased pressure these days to hang on to their employees. Much of that stress revolves around remote work, but it can also involve retention challenges that predate the pandemic, like how to support and encourage leaders within your own ranks.

“Oftentimes, we’re very busy with what we’re doing, and we don’t always think enough about planning ahead and really committing to support people in their success,” says Shane Feldman, CAE, CEO of Innivee Strategies and a former association executive. He’ll discuss how leaders can handle leadership development internally at his session at the 2022 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition, “Seeking the Right Leader? Start With the Right Search Process,” August 22 at 2 p.m. In advance of that session, he shared a few of his keys for getting that process moving in the right direction.

Be intentional about leadership development. Leaders don’t always naturally emerge in your organization—and if they do, they may do so as a result of unconscious bias. (More on that in a moment.) A better process starts with leaders committing to communicating with staff members about their leadership potential. “As a leader, I have to be intentional,” Feldman says. “I have to sit down with individuals to discuss it, either to reflect on their journey as a leader, or talking about what things will look like for them to move forward as a leader.” 

‘You must have 10 years of experience’ means you’re only looking at people who’ve shown that they wanted to become leaders 10 years ago.

Shane Feldman, CAE, Innivee Strategies

Conquer fear—yours and theirs. Leaders might be hesitant to raise the subject with staff members who have potential, and those same staffers might be afraid to raise it themselves for fear they lack certain qualifications. Leaders need to step in and surface (and allay) those concerns. “Oftentimes, people’s own assessment of themselves, especially if they’re from underprivileged or marginalized communities, is that they don’t think they’re ready for that kind of role, until somebody else actively asks them,” Feldman says.

Rethink qualifications. Associations, which are often credentialing bodies, can be overly focused on the kinds of resume-friendly achievements that past generations have focused on in hiring—degrees, certifications, job tenures. Feldman recommends that leaders resist taking those elements in themselves as evidence for leadership potential. “If you say, ‘You must have 10 years of experience and leadership,’ that means that you’re only looking at people who’ve shown that they wanted to become leaders 10 years ago,” he says. 

That applies to board work too. Volunteer leaders hiring a new CEO should consider looking beyond everyday roles and responsibilities. “Then you’re only focusing on the function of the job itself,” he says. “If you want to have some sort of change, if you want to capture the challenges that need to be addressed, ask: What are the challenges that would be faced, what person is the right kind of person to face these challenges?”

Do more than invite diverse candidates. Organizations looking to hire from underrepresented communities should be prepared to talk about their diversity, equity, and inclusion work and how diverse employees and stakeholders are supported. “Your belief statement shouldn’t just be words—it needs to be ways of showing how you can maintain that commitment,” he says. “Members of the BIPOC community oftentimes want to see what your DEI statement is, but they also want to see where you’re going above and beyond that statement. What are your actions that really show that commitment and follow-through with that statement?” 

What processes have worked for your association when it comes to internal leadership development? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Caiaimage/Robert Daly/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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