How to Develop Leadership Skills in Employees: Insights and Strategies

In the corporate world, visionary leaders are lionized. Organizations search endlessly for the next Steve Jobs or Jamie Dimon, hoping to find the one person who can take them to the next level.

But this approach overlooks an essential truth—leaders throughout a company, from middle managers to department heads, are just as essential to driving culture and change. In fact, in the Emeritus 2021 Global Career Impact Survey of 2,200 professionals worldwide, management and leadership ranked second (34%) on the list of the most critical upskilling needs for respondents’ teams or organizations, following only artificial intelligence (39%).

Companies that recognize this reality take steps to develop leaders from within. But what does that look like in practice, and why should other companies follow suit?

Bar graph revealing management and leadership as a top upskilling need in organizations
Source: Emeritus 2021 Global Career Impact Survey

Why Companies Should Invest in Leadership Skills Development

In large companies, many employees have minimal interactions with the top level of the organization. Their work, oversight, and motivation come instead from the manager to whom they report daily. These managers, therefore, have a considerable influence on employees’ morale, productivity, and longevity within the company—all of which have significant implications for the company’s bottom line.

However, many middle managers reach their positions not through formal leadership skills development or training programs but simply by receiving a promotion after excelling in an individual contributor role. In fact, 61% of companies offer no leadership training, according to a LinkedIn Learning report.

Without adequate preparation, new managers may struggle in their roles, potentially causing turnover, employee performance issues, and more. Providing these managers with the support and resources they need not only improves their own performance but also trickles down to make their teams stronger, more engaged, and more effective.

Additionally, the development of leadership skills is an essential part of an organization’s succession planning. When promising talent within the organization is given the tools to expand their skills and grow into leadership roles, the company is better prepared to handle turnover and preserve institutional knowledge.

Identifying Leadership Development Goals

Like any other organizational initiative, an effective leadership development program starts with assessing the company’s specific needs and formulating a plan. While certain leadership skills for employees—like emotional intelligence and the ability to motivate others—may be universally relevant, other focus areas will differ based on a company’s specific situation.

For example, a company that is heavy on early-career employees will likely need to offer more foundational training focused on the nuts and bolts of people management, while organizations with well-established pools of leaders will want to both ensure that current leadership is up-to-date on best practices and also consider succession planning. 

Metrics such as employee turnover, productivity levels, and the success of recent strategic initiatives can be used to identify growth areas for the organization’s leaders. With growth areas and skill gaps identified, organizations can move forward to develop tactics for addressing them. 

Identifying Potential Leaders

Identifying the employees who might benefit from a leadership skills development program is the next step. While existing managers are an easy choice, it’s also important to look further down the ranks to pick out lower-level employees with leadership potential. While leadership potential is often conflated with success in an individual contributor role, the truth is that the skills needed to lead may be quite different. Instead, organizations should look for employees who demonstrate leadership skills such as: 

  • Critical thinking
  • Strategic decision-making
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Level headedness
  • Integrity
  • Positivity

While most leadership tactics can be trained, these qualities are generally good indicators that an employee may be well-suited for a managerial or leadership role. 

Strategies for the Development of Leadership Skills

Learn how to develop leadership skills in employees by exploring the tactics for organizations below.

1. Institute a Mentorship Program

While mentorship programs can come in many forms, a common approach is to pair a promising employee with an existing leader in the organization. Typically, the mentor should be outside of the employee’s reporting structure to avoid tricky dynamics and encourage candor. Mentorship may include regular coaching conversations or even shared projects.

2. Send Employees Through External Training Programs

Company-specific internal professional development is invaluable. However, many employees benefit significantly from the structure of external leadership programs, either online or in-person, like those Emeritus offers. Since these programs attract learners from a wide range of industries, they allow participants to gain additional perspectives and learn strategies that may be new to their organization.

3. Provide Opportunities for Networking

Increasing an employee’s visibility across both the organization and their industry will allow them to observe and learn from a wider variety of leaders while gaining valuable connections that will make them more effective in their new roles. Invite potential leaders to higher-level meetings when possible and invest in sending them to industry conferences and events.

4. Give Employees Stretch Projects

Stretch projects, which might involve leading a small team in running a company initiative that is challenging but not mission-critical, give emerging leaders the chance to try (and sometimes fail) in real-time. This not only offers employees a valuable learning opportunity but also gives the organization valuable data about the employee’s strengths and growth areas. 

5. Provide Regular Feedback on Leadership Skills

As emerging leaders work to develop their skills, give them regular feedback on aspects of their performance that might not otherwise appear in a review. Honest, constructive feedback on things like listening ability, delegation, and attitude will help employees grow and also create a record of their progress to inform their next moves.

Organizations that invest in the development of leadership skills gain significant competitive advantages, including reduced attrition, decreased cost of hiring, and a more skilled and innovative workforce. 

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If your organization is ready to upskill its future leaders, reach out to the Emeritus Enterprise team to learn how our programs can prepare your employees for leadership success.

By Rachel Hastings

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