How to Support Emerging Leaders

Keeping good people, on staff or among volunteers, means training them up. It also requires looking across an organization and maintaining focus.

Employee retention is still a top-of-mind issue for leaders—it drives many of today’s conversations around DEI, the hybrid workplace, efforts to improve workplace wellness, and more. Ultimately, people want to feel like they belong in an organization, which is why beyond just supporting the day-to-day aspects of work, giving people something to aspire to can help them stick around.

Hence the conversations around developing emerging leaders, and increasing investment in it: A recent report from Future Market Insights, for instance, found that the investments in leadership-development programs will increase nearly 6 percent annually across the next decade

So what will that look like to be successful?

For one thing, according to a recent Big Think piece by Giovanna Acota, it will be wide-ranging. Though there might be distinctions between among who’s selected for emerging leaders programs, she writes, the process shouldn’t favor particular departments, longevity, or past achievements. “The ideal participant for an emerging leaders program is anyone who has the potential to become an effective leader—from entry-level to tenured employee,” she writes. 

The ideal participant for an emerging leaders program is anyone who has the potential to become an effective leader.

Research suggests that an all-inclusive approach to leadership development benefits organizations, primarily because it avoids creating a culture of haves and have-nots. But as Acosta points out, that breadth is just the beginning. To achieve “buy-in and accountability,” she writes, the program needs to have clearly stated goals and benefits. It also needs to provide steady feedback from the mentors and leaders who are running the program, and not abandon them after it’s done.

Perhaps most importantly, the program should make sense for the organization that’s providing it; an off-the-shelf plan will be less effective than one that’s tailored for how the association’s culture and its industry operates. “Which general competencies is the program intended to develop? Which role-specific competencies?” Acosta writes. “The answers to these questions should tie back to the organization’s strategic goals so that participants are well aware of the organization’s needs and well-equipped to meet them.”

This isn’t just an issue with staff members—leadership development is a challenge among association volunteers as well. A recent ASAE Foundation report, A Holistic Approach to Volunteer Management, found that while volunteer engagement remained remarkably resilient through the pandemic, the effectiveness of the volunteers gets relatively low marks. Volunteering, just like a job, needs to have meaning for the people involved; one of the standards of the report is “commitment to continuous improvement.” And that will be defined by the association understanding what its goals are and communicating them. 

Not every staffer is meant for the C-suite; not every volunteer is meant to be a board chair, or even on the board. But all deserve an opportunity to learn on the job, and to feel like they’re part of an organization’s bigger mission. “Investing in the development of new leaders helps them feel acknowledged and respected,” Acosta writes, and “allows them to become more motivated, engaged, and committed.” Wherever your people end up, that’s a worthwhile effort.


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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