Who’s After You? (Five strategies for developing future leaders)
During my many years of working retail, I began to view my role as General Manager (GM) as the one who prepares the next GM. This epiphany was the result of me trying to figure out how not to work as many hours, put out as many fires, and dealing with the dramas of “bossdom”.
It was in the late 90’s and I was working for a large organization with many locations throughout the US, and just finished my holiday hiring for our retail store. During the interview process there was one young lady who did not have a lot of experience but had such a genuinely polite smile and the bluest eyes ever, that I decided to bring her on for one of the seasonal positions.
As we moved towards Black Friday, I began to notice her attention to detail when given assignments and how she would deal with other members of the team who were not holding up their part of keeping the store organized and clean between rushes. More importantly I noticed the other team members were listening to what she had to say even though she was not in a supervisory position.
My mother once said to me that she couldn’t tell if I was the smartest kid she had ever seen or the laziest because I always figured out a faster, more effective way to do everything. It was that innate ability that made me wonder how I could use my seasonal employee’s natural talents to decrease my workload and focus on raising the effectiveness of team members who were underperforming.
The first thing I did was take her to lunch and had a conversation about who she was. I learned about her family and upbringing. How her dad was a disciplinarian that required the best of she and her siblings, but still made time to play ball with them and take vacations.
As I learned about her aspirations, I realized they were not in retail, but she was raised to give her all to anything she was involved in, which was refreshing when you consider she was a 19-year-old college student.
It won’t come as a surprise that I made her a team leader and key holder and at the end of the holiday season, a fulltime employee. Through our interactions, I recognized the need to challenge her as often as I could. I involved her in every facet of leadership from resolving employee issues, to managing irate customers.
By the second year she was a full fledge manager and becoming quite a leader. I know you think the next thing is me promoting her to Assistant Manager and you’re right, but not at the retail center where I hired her. I was approached by an even larger retail company and asked to manage one of their flagship stores. When I told my “mini-me” she wasn’t surprised, but she was very surprised when I told her she was coming with me and would be my Assistant GM.
Over the next two years, I taught her all of the back-office functions including inventory management, how to read P&L and cashflow statements, sales projections, and let her hire most of the support staff. With her leadership skills moving to full swing, I was able to leave the store and build our business to business (B2B) clientele, which resulted in our location being the 2nd highest producer in our district of 11 stores.
When she came to tell me, she wanted to accept a leadership position in a non-retail industry, I was very proud. Although I would not get to hand the baton off to her in my organization, the same effect was still true. She took all she had learned and leveraged it to a better paying job in an arena that excited her and I was given a new perspective on building future leaders. This consisted of five specific strategies which I will now share with you.
1. Hire with purpose
2. Get to know your people
3. Look for leadership characteristics
4. Leadership coaching
5. Challenge them to chart new courses
Hire With Purpose
No matter your industry, hiring with purpose is about fulfilling your vision as a business leader. Each person that is onboarded should have a specific value in achieving your goals. It doesn’t mean that you are hiring position specific but looking for attributes that are consistent with the level of drive, curiosity, and accountability you need. I think Jim Collins says it best, “find great people, then figure out what to do with them”.
Get To Know Your People
Once you have onboarded great people, take the time to get to know them. When you have team meetings ask for suggestions on systems, processes, products, and customer service and listen to what they have to say. Let them know there are no wrong answers and no retribution for observations that may be unpopular. Have regular team events to get to know them and quarterly events where they can bring their families. Be loyal to them and your leaders will emerge.
Look For Leadership Characteristics
There are as many theories on what makes a great leader as there are great leaders, so I am going to give you a simplified version. Leaders are servants! You are looking for individuals who consider the needs of others when implementing a strategy instead of someone who just tells people what to do.
Look for the person everyone goes to for solutions, personal and professional. Determine if they have enough attention to detail for visioning and strategic planning and is not afraid to get creative when dealing with extreme situations.
I am not saying your organization will always produce leaders, you may find great managers as well, but the focus of this article is to help you develop leaders, whether they stay with your organization or not.
In my practice, leadership coaching has far less to do with theories and concepts and more with identifying the things that make leaders flourish and those that cause challenges. I do not try to make my leadership clients think like me, rather I give them examples of situations and ask how they would handle them based on a desired outcome.
What I am listening and watching for are the cues that show me what they are comfortable with and what causes anxiety. Since my goal is to empower them to make decisions, fail, and not to be afraid to take risks, I must understand the whole person. Are there outside factors that may affect their focus? Are they dealing with life issues that distract them from peak performance?
You don’t have to be a psychologist to be an effective coach, but you do have to help them identify anything that could be a potential anchor and lead them through planning with consideration of how those things may affect their efficacy. If it requires professional intervention, then provide it, but make sure you are speaking with them regularly as they go through the process.
As the issues are being resolved, take the time to analyze successes and failures with them. Let them realize their growth because of self-improvement and your willingness to help them grow further. Ask them why certain decisions were made on successful outcomes, how they were able to transfer their vision to the rest of the team, and how to make the gains sustainable.
For less than desired outcomes, ask what they learned. Was there something that was unclear in the directives or how they perceived the stated outcomes? Have them walk you through each step of the decision process and coach them to see where it went off course. Remember the goal is not to assign blame or chastise “epic fails”, but to coach them from their current thinking to a higher level of understanding that has a greater opportunity to meet your expectations.
Challenge Them To Chart A New Course
At this point you have a well-balanced and focused leader. The final step would be to give him/her your 18- and 24-month goals and challenge them to build the strategies for their achievement. Allow them as much access to resources as you feel comfortable and enough time for research.
Have them present their idea in its entirety and while you may ask questions, take at least 24 hours before giving a final response. I want you to be mindful of the effort and curious about the logic, even if it’s the craziest thing you’ve ever heard. If you have followed the steps prior to this one, it is far less likely that their proposal will be off by much, which presents another opportunity for you to coach their growth and understanding.
Tom Peters authored the saying, “leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders”. I want to take it a step further by adding, you are creating leaders for the world and not just yourself. Answering the question of “who’s after you” is the recognition of your contribution to society and ensuring that high level business practices are continued.