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How to develop effective internal leadership pipelines

Old strategies for creating leadership pipelines must be reconsidered. Rashan Dixon offers three questions to consider.

5 min read


leadership pipelines

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The Great Resignation is taking its toll on workplaces across every industry. The struggle to maintain staff and C-suite alike is harder now than it’s been in decades. As the talent pool shrinks and skill gaps grow, it’s important for companies to develop internal talent pipelines to meet ongoing needs — especially when it comes to leadership.

There are many traditional pieces of advice for this process. Create internal pathways to leadership. Curate learning opportunities. Provide coaching and mentorship programs. However, in the evolving 21st-century workplace, leaders must think beyond these formulaic past approaches. Here are three critical aspects to consider if you want to develop effective internal leadership pipelines. 

1. Really invest the time

It’s no secret that to develop internal leaders, you need to identify them at some point along the way. Even so, many leaders don’t invest genuine time in this process. They follow their gut or look for obvious external signs, like how someone dresses.

If you want to be effective in fostering future leaders, you need to look deeper than the surface. The way someone dresses or acts can say a lot about their leadership qualities. But in the remote-friendly, casual-first modern office, it can be hard to identify leaders purely through these traditional criteria. 

At times, you’ll need to be a bit more purposeful in your analysis. As you do this, look for consistent quiet behaviors that indicate certain soft skills, or life skills as they are sometimes referred to. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • Does an employee word their emails with confidence? 
  • Do they accept responsibility for their actions?
  • Can they make decisions without hesitating or trying to pawn off the responsibility?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, and they require some meaningful attention from leaders. What talented individuals are you overlooking? Before you invest in cultivating employees for future leadership, ensure you understand how to identify those with the raw talent and skills to go the distance. 

2. Be transparent

In the past, the process of succession planning and cultivating future leadership has been shrouded in mystery. Harvard Business Review points out that this was due to “an attempt to avoid sapping the motivation of those who aren’t on the fast track. The idea is that if you don’t know where you stand (and you stand on a low rung), you will continue to strive to climb the ladder.” 

This old-school approach has its advantages. There are fewer broken hopes and dreams when individuals don’t know when or where they will actually get a promotion. However, it can also leave employees hesitant and uncertain as you ask them to invest in an unclear future. This can limit their input and make it hard to assess their true leadership potential. In addition, the current lack of talent means those with clear leadership skills can become passive candidates for other companies eager for qualified leaders.

Rather than risk the downsides of secrecy, it is advisable to be honest and transparent about your leadership pipeline. Let employees know where they stand on the ladder and use that information to inspire them to take the next step. This creates a mutually beneficial environment, in which the employee feels respected and invited into the succession process. As the best evaluator of their own skills and ambition, they can also provide key insights into how they can prepare for the future within your pipeline.

3. Let yourself be uncomfortable

As a final note, consider your own position in the leadership development process. As a current leader, it’s important to evaluate how you interact with future leaders within your organization. Don’t allow criticism or innovation to threaten your own confidence.

Developing the next generation of leaders means you’re preparing them to lead your company with boldness. When you do that well, chances are they’re going to start to have their own ideas before they’re actually in their future positions (and that’s a good thing). As that confidence and creativity grows, you want to allow them to question you and your decisions. This isn’t an open invitation for them to disrespect you. However, an individual in your leadership pipeline should absolutely have the chance to voice their own opinions without receiving a defensive answer from current management.

The good news is, if you’re open to alternative ideas and an ongoing challenge of the status quo, it can make it easier for future leaders to show respect, even as they express their ideas. Current leaders should embrace a growth mindset that is open to regularly assessing business activity, identifying issues and pivoting to make adjustments — all while inviting future leaders in on the process.

Preparing for the future

There are many ways to create an internal leadership pipeline. However, these initiatives won’t work well if you don’t keep these three things in mind. 

If you want a leadership development initiative to work, you have to start by investing genuine time and effort. Transparency is also critical in the empowered and decentralized modern work environment. You also must allow future leaders to respectfully challenge your decisions as a way to invite them in on the leadership process.

If you can do that, you can set your company up for sustainable success through strong, confident and perpetual C-suite leadership.


Rashan Dixon is a senior business systems analyst at Microsoft, an entrepreneur and a writer for various business publications.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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