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How to Keep Your Best Leaders: 4 Keys to Building a Flourishing Leadership Pipeline

May 14, 2024
Cropped shot of a group of colleagues having a discussion in a modern office

Although some reports have declared the Great Resignation is over, now is not the time to take your eye off the ball of employee retention. Turnover rates are still high in comparison to pre-pandemic levels. Attracting and retaining top talent continues to be a major concern in most industries, with no end in sight.

A recent Gallup study highlights an even greater concern among those serving in managerial roles. Their research found managers are more likely than non-managers to be disengaged at work, burned out, looking for a new job and feeling like their organization doesn’t care about their well-being. Among managers surveyed, 55% indicated they were watching for or actively seeking a new job, a significant uptick from 44% who said that in 2019.

Amid these intense challenges, what can you do to keep your best leaders? You simply can’t afford to lose them. Here are four keys to build a flourishing leadership pipeline that produces future leaders from within the organization: Identify them, engage them, develop them and empower them.

Identify them

Identifying your best leaders can be as simple as answering the question, “Which leaders are you most afraid of losing?” Seek input on this question throughout the organization, focusing on individuals currently serving in leadership roles, as well as potential future leaders. Take note of those with the strongest influence and rapport among their coworkers. Watch for signs of initiative — one of the first indicators of leadership potential. At the same time, ensure these individuals are aligned with your organization’s mission and values.

“'Which leaders are you most afraid of losing?' Seek input on this question throughout the organization."

For a more structured assessment, create a leadership competency model that outlines expectations for leaders at each level in your organization. Include core technical skills, but don’t stop there. Address crucial nontechnical skills, such as strategic thinking, emotional intelligence, stakeholder management and the ability to develop others. One of my public accounting clients created a grid with a column for each leadership level, showing the progression required for leaders to advance from one level to the next.

Conduct a pipeline analysis, identifying leadership succession needs over the next several years. Look at each position, anticipating when significant transitions in leadership will occur. Identify the next individual — or potential individuals — in line for each role, as these individuals are likely to be your best leaders.

Engage them

After noticeable improvements in the early stages of the pandemic, employee engagement has been on the decline the past three years. The top two causes identified in Gallup’s report are unclear expectations at work and feeling disconnected from the mission and purpose of the organization. If these factors are problematic for the workforce as a whole, they are doubly problematic when experienced by your best leaders.

Assign leaders meaningful work that enables them to see how they contribute to your organization’s mission, purpose and strategic plan. Seek their input on opportunities to make an even greater impact. Recognize their contributions to ensure they feel appreciated. Cultivate a positive, healthy culture that reminds them why they enjoy working in your organization.

Develop them

According to Gallup’s research, a lack of opportunities for development ranked third among causes for the drop-off in employee engagement. In addition, only 48% of managers surveyed said they strongly agree that they have the skills needed to be exceptional in their current jobs. Thus, embedding leadership development in your culture will provide a competitive advantage in your retention efforts.

Engage your best leaders regularly in career path conversations, with a realistic view of what it takes to get promoted in your organization. When appropriate, include them in discussions about the pipeline analysis described above. Highlight their current readiness for promotion and identify gaps that need attention.

"Provide stretch assignments with exposure to complex business challenges, giving regular feedback on their performance."

It’s also important to work with them to create an individual development plan, offering a variety of growth opportunities, both formal and informal. To do so, provide stretch assignments with exposure to complex business challenges, giving regular feedback on their performance. Invite them to shadow senior leaders, expanding their understanding of leadership at higher levels within the organization. At the same time, protect them from being overwhelmed with a too-heavy workload, as your best leaders are also the go-to person when others assign work.

Empower them

Make sure to let your best leaders lead. This means entrusting them with ownership of important projects and the decision-making that is required. Encourage them to innovate, experiment and even fail at times. Allow increasing levels of autonomy, while providing the resources they need to succeed. Then reward their success by including them in bigger decisions affecting the team or organization, as appropriate.

Challenge your best leaders to develop their leadership outside of the workplace, too, through charitable or community involvement.

A proactive approach to keep your best leaders

In today’s rapidly changing business environment, keeping your best leaders requires a proactive, intentional approach. By identifying, engaging, developing and empowering your best leaders, your leadership pipeline will flourish, producing the leadership you need for long-term success and viability as an organization.

  • If you’ve identified up-and-coming leaders in your organization, have them apply for INCPAS Young Pros Leadership Academy (YPLA) by June 2, 2024.This free, 2-year development program offers in-depth assessments, discussions and training to get them where they need to be. Must be an INCPAS member aged 30 or younger, and a CPA or pursuing their license.

This article was originally published in Footnote, the official magazine of the Minnesota Society of CPAs. It is reprinted with permission.


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Jon Lokhorst, CPA, ACC
About the Author

Jon Lokhorst, CSP, CPA, PCC, is a leadership speaker, trainer, coach, and author of Mission-Critical Leadership: How Smart Managers Lead Well in All Directions.