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Bench strength is vital to a business’s growth and success.

Here is some practical advice from Lockstep’s CEO, Rowan Belchers.

Are you indispensable?

If you haven’t spent time building your organisation’s leadership bench strength, you might be impossible to replace and thus become a risk area for your business.

Without a strategic plan to build bench strength, you are leaving your company in a vulnerable position and you might very well be chasing away your company’s top talent – inadvertently, of course.

In a ruthless job economy, talent moves often and you need to add value that your leadership team can’t get elsewhere. Your best employees will pursue stand-out work experiences and if you offer a sub-par leadership ‘experience’ you might find your executive team heading for the door.

The rapid loss of senior talent is a real risk for a company, especially a growing one. Furthermore, your leadership team is the most important lever for impact in your business and they are likely the talent you’ve invested the most time, money and energy in.

To persuade leaders to stay with you, you need to have your long-term vision both for them and for the business well polished. If you don’t, enlist your leadership coach or advisor to help you as they will add dimensions that you haven’t thought about before. At its core, this vision needs to be inviting and energising.

Also, your leaders are the key ambassadors for your culture and strategy – two of the critical pillars that a CEO is responsible for. When leaders leave you, a whole lot of value beyond just the individual walks out the door.

Knowing how vitally important building leadership bench strength is, how do you actually go about building it? Crucially, you shouldn’t be delegating this vital task to someone else.

The CEO’s role in building leadership bench strength. 

Only the CEO can build the bench strength of the senior leadership team. In most organisations, no one other than the CEO carries enough sway or stored knowledge to build genuine, high-quality leaders for succession.

Though you should enable others to help you and hire excellent leadership practitioners to develop the personal and technical leadership skills required of your team, in the end, the CEO must be the champion of this exercise and have their fingerprints all over the process.

As a CEO, if you don’t have a growth mindset, you’ll be ineffective at building bench-strength. To do this, you need to deeply understand how personal development happens. You don’t have to be the technical expert, but you need to be able to understand what it takes to build a leader. The best way to do this is to dive into your own leadership journey and learn to speak to it with ease and surety.

And as Inc. points out, part of building an effective leadership team and cementing their path to growth is to communicate and collaborate: “Likely you’ve grown used to lead by pressing forward with your ideas and decisions. While that may be ‘efficient’, it won’t help you develop your leadership team. Instead, ask your leadership team for their perspectives. This can be done one-on-one, or during leadership team meetings.”

Remember that this is competitive for your leadership team – don’t make this out to be what it’s not. There will be some winners and some losers as you keep stretching your leaders.

However,  if you invite an open, direct, transparent leadership conversation, they’re unlikely to resent it down the line when the conversations become ‘real’. Mature, resilient relationships are the only way to do this, so accept that the path ahead looks and feels this way.

As Forbes explains further, “News flash: Leadership is a tough gig. Building a strong team isn’t just about hiring the clichéd, self-confessed team players with excellent communication skills. While the ability to maintain good interpersonal relationships shouldn’t be dismissed, a leader needs to build a team that can consistently perform, execute flawlessly and attain goals. They need to create a team that can earn the respect of the organization, take responsibility and learn from mistakes.”

You need a deep and nuanced understanding of what your organisation needs to perform and how to shape your leadership team to reflect this. Most importantly is knowing what future-shape your organisation will take and what the leadership needs to look like skills- and character-wise.

Finally, you need to hone your ability to understand each leader as a separate audience and play to what they value. Never to the point of being incongruent, but simply recognise that different people value different elements of a career path.

Practical implementation. 

Now that you know the theory – how do you implement this?

You have to be creative about juggling the potential over-supply of leaders you might need to carry. It’s inevitable you might lose some of your bench strength along the way (succession can be competitive) and keeping everyone interested will rely on some creativity from you and your head of HR/Talent.

Here are some tips and practical actions you can take to strategically build your leadership bench strength:

  • Track the growth of your leaders over time – as in write it down!
  • Make career promises – and keep them. Don’t err on under-promising as it’ll end up being a tepid offering that will tempt top leadership talent to look elsewhere.
  • Be brave and name it when someone isn’t going to make the grade – your reputation for being honest will serve you well in the long term.
  • Make leadership-building one of your top five priorities. This is now accepted best practice for CEO’s globally.
  • Understand the ’talents’ of your second-tier of leaders well. This differs from skills, or past history, or job title. Really get to grips with what their unique talents are – and thus the contribution they are able to make to your organisation – and shape their career path with that in mind.
  • Model trust and loyalty yourself. If they see it from you, they will return the favour.

In the end, you need to have organisational flexibility to provide a constantly evolving career path for your future leaders. Job rotation, secondment, special projects, assistant-to-the CEO positions are all examples of this. If your organisation is rigid, you will not be sufficiently dynamic and your organisation will struggle to grow.

It is likely that every organisation will experience a leadership change at least once in its lifetime, and potentially many changes depending on the longevity of the business. A good indicator of long term prosperity is consistently excellent leadership, making developing bench strength one of the most crucial skills required of any organisational leader.

Would you like to ensure that you’re building your bench strength in the most effective way? Contact Rowan directly. 

Jonathan-Rowan Belchers

Jonathan-Rowan Belchers

“I’m driven by the truth that one remarkable leader can change the fortunes of many. And I’m committed to championing those leaders across all continents.”

With an enduring passion for high performance and exceptional leadership, Jonathan-Rowan has advanced the footprint of Lockstep since founding it in 2006. A graduate of both Harvard and Berkeley and a certified business coach, he has 20+ years in the leadership advisory sector and lectures at a number of foremost business schools. He is an artist at heart – an avid reader, musician and painter.

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