Identifying leaders during challenging times

Tough times in business can be a proving ground for your rising stars.

Any phase of the business cycle is a good time to develop leaders but difficult trading conditions can make it tempting to focus on working through the rough patch rather than nurturing leadership potential. Developing a commitment to recognising and growing future leaders is critical. Your next generation of leaders could be one of the firm’s best assets in challenging times – and beyond.

The 2015 Robert Half Salary Guide notes that 82% of Australians business leaders are concerned about losing their top performers to competitors in the coming year. On the flipside, 23% of professionals cite ‘career advancement’ as a reason to leave their job. Taken together, these figures reinforce the importance of developing leaders is part of a successful employee retention policy. So, follow these key steps:

Create an environment where leadership is valued

Your people need to be comfortable displaying leadership capabilities, and this can only happen when you create an environment where employees feel at ease in expressing diverse opinions or developing innovative solutions. Encourage employees to take the initiative by publicly celebrating and rewarding excellence.

Allow scope to expand personal skill sets

Employees who can see the ‘big picture’ offer tremendous value to a firm particularly when conditions are adverse. The thing is, we can easily become caught up in the narrow scope of our role especially when market conditions are tough.

One means of both identifying leaders and fostering your leaders is to provide exposure to a broad cross-section of the business. Consider giving your up-and-coming accounting talent the chance to engage with sales or marketing teams as a way of developing a realistic understanding of sales and revenue targets. Or offer your budding leaders a role in projects that span multiple departments. Not only can this help to develop a holistic view of your business, you are also building breadth of experience.

Some employees will feel out of their depth working in areas that don’t directly relate to their skill set. Others will hit their stride, relishing the chance to embrace new concepts. These are your budding leaders.

Show trust

Trust is central to distinguishing employees with leadership potential. Be prepared to give your top talent increased responsibility though only delegate tasks you know each person has the potential to accomplish. As a guide, give a junior account manager responsibility for a mid-tier client – make it clear you are available if help is needed but observe how well they rise to the occasion.

Actively develop a sense of leadership

The ability to lead comes more naturally to some than to others. Give your rising stars an opportunity to take the lead in formal settings – conducting team meetings, or taking on a leadership role in smaller projects.  Leadership can also be developed in informal settings like firm-wide sporting events or community days.

Discuss these experiences with your candidates. Ask if they recognise areas where they could do things differently or more effectively. Importantly, encourage listening skills and empathy. These are the foundations of a good motivator.

Let your people know they are valued

Make sure each of your top performers know they are valued by the firm. This can be done in a variety of ways like letting your up and coming leaders know you need their input on a project. A simple “I need your help” can go a long way.

Bear in mind though, top talent is highly sought after in the market. That makes it essential to at least stay abreast with current market salaries.

Use the following four factors when assessing remuneration and a salary increase:

  • Technical competency / measurable results
  • Willingness to learn / advance
  • Professional conduct / collaboration / teamwork
  • Assuming additional tasks outside responsibility

Provide mentors

Finally, behind every sporting success there is a great coach – this is the same in business. Your potential leaders will benefit from one-on-one mentoring. If you are unable to personally provide that level of coaching, look outside your firm to find suitable mentors for your top people. Industry bodies can be a good source, and in addition to developing leadership skills, mentoring can inject fresh ideas into your business.

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