How Leaders Develop More Leaders

One of the most challenging choices that any leader makes is how to spend their time. And a huge component of that choice is the decision of who to invest in within their team.

I don’t mean that leaders can choose to make no investment in certain people on their team.  The reality is we have to invest time in each of our team members, or we can be sure that they will disengage.  And pretty soon, those we don’t invest in will command our attention due to poor performance, conflict, or a vacancy. 

If you have a small team, the decision is a little easier.  We might be able to invest extra time in everyone.  That’s an ideal situation.  But as that team grows, we are faced with prioritizing our time in some challenging ways.

Organizations typically have a span of control, that means many managers are dealing with 10, 12, or even more direct reports. Pretty soon the math doesn’t work if you would like to develop a high potential employee, or support someone who is aggressively seeking to learn more or develop at a faster pace.

As leaders, we simply have to assess potential, and focus our efforts and our time based on that assessment.  Everyone should get coached and supported.  But there will also be the choice of who we spend a little extra time and energy on because we believe they could become exceptional leaders themselves, and have tremendous impact on others, and on the future.

It’s no different than any other time analysis we do.  We try to identify our highest payoff activities and spend more of our time on them.  However, when it comes to people this feels more challenging because humans are involved, not just activities.  And as a leader, we don’t want to ever think that we are shortchanging someone or not giving them everything they need to become successful.

And yet, spreading our leadership time like peanut butter is a recipe for mediocrity in most organizations.  And leaders in organizations that think that way lose high performing individuals who want to grow, achieve, learn and improve at a rate that they feel gives them a better chance of success, and the ability to make more impact on others.

So we have to look for some leading indicators that tell us an individual is ready to turn our extra investment into greater results and a lasting impact on another human.  Not everyone is in the same place regarding what they want to learn, the effort they want to put into improvement, and the focus they have on growth and development.

Here are a few ways to think about that challenging assessment, which might give you a framework for what feels like a completely subjective assessment. It also helps you keep things fair by having a process for where you invest, rather than basing it on your affinity, friendship, or history with any one person.

You can even rate these items on a scale of 1-5 to help you tighten the assessment process.  Of course, there is still subjectivity involved, there is with most elements of leadership.  But by building a more detailed repeatable assessment process, we limit our biases significantly and improve our outcomes.

  • Learning mindset: Do they aggressively seek, explore, consume, and apply new information that might help them improve or develop?  Have you seen them pursue learning opportunities both inside and outside of their work environment?
  • Accountability: Do they focus on future possibilities, solutions, and ownership more than blame, problems, or what happened in the past?  Do they own their individual success, or feel like it is dependent on circumstances, or other factors out of their control?
  • Habit building: Have you seen them actively create new habits based on new information, new goals, or new ways of thinking?  For example, have they shifted a planning process, or the way they have conversations with customers, or a way they make decisions?  And have they made that a new habit for themselves?
  • Interaction: Can they connect with others around them?  Have they demonstrated the capability to build relationships with others, contribute to the success of others, and support those around them, including their team members?  This is critical so that we are investing in people that can multiply our leadership time as they invest in others along the way.  This is scalable leadership.

You can probably think of more descriptors or assessment items to add to a list like this, but it is important that if we are going to apply our time and effort to people, we do more than just impulsively decide on who gets our investment.

Leadership is a limited resource, and we have a responsibility to develop into leaders that can make a difference for others, and also to focus the capabilities we build for ourselves in a direction that will give them the best chance to have impact.

Part of how we excel as leaders is by helping to develop more leaders. That means we get to do more than just make this week, month, or year better.  We get to leave a legacy that will reach far beyond what we can see.