A couple of weeks ago, I shared the story of Ursula Burns and her rise to the top of Xerox Corporation to become the first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company. On one hand, her success is an extraordinary accomplishment; there were numerous barriers that could have potentially stood in the way of her advancement. But at the same time, her growth as a senior leader required a great deal of effort, flexibility, opportunism and a few big breaks along the way in order to come about.

She is a star example of someone who independently figured out how to chart her own career path upstream.

The problem is, for many people like Ursula Burns in a growing firm, there may be dozens more with tremendous leadership potential. But when firms are not making the right kinds of effort to identify, train, nurture, and retain them, these people either under-perform, leave, or worse, get promoted to leadership positions that don’t suit their innate personalities, skills, and strengths. This last outcome can cause a negative ripple effect that can bring down the whole firm- destroying productivity, morale, and ultimately, the firm’s bottom line.

Without a solid succession plan and a clear pathway to career advancement and professional development, chances are a firm is wasting a lot of time, money, and other resources on the wrong people.

So how can senior leadership identify and develop future leaders right from the beginning- those who will innovate, master change, and guide the organisation in meeting the new demands of an evolving market? There are three main factors that must be ingrained into the way a firm operates:

  1. There is a clear definition of leadership for each area of the firm. Different divisions and roles require specific skill sets and approaches to leadership. The things that motivate the marketing department are different to that which drives the design or delivery team. Knowing which leadership styles are best suited to each division is an essential first step.
  2. The firm relies on various assessment strategies to identify potential leaders. This includes personality assessments, job performance measurements, as well as reviews from supervisors and peers. The goal here is to try to determine which people have potential leadership qualities necessary for a specific role or department, and to do this in the most objective way possible. Of course, there are also some general leadership characteristics to look out for that will apply in any situation, such as the ability to handle set-backs, process information, seek out learning opportunities, and to develop new ideas.
  1. There is a defined path for career development and advancement. Without this final element, the previous two factors mentioned above will be of little help. But getting those systems in place to effectively refine and broaden the leadership skills of high-potential employees will take a real cultural shift- not just a shift in policy. Only when a whole firm is aligned towards developing, empowering, and engaging their employees, will the best and brightest naturally rise to the top. Though the actual policies and practices for career advancement and development will be unique to a firm, the most successful firms tend to do some things in common, namely: they rotate employees through different projects and sectors, they have mentoring programs, and they ensure that employees get “real-time” feedback and coaching.

Bottom line: if firms really want to figure out which of their employees has leadership potential, then they need to be clear about who they are looking for in the first place…..and why. They must then ensure that these people are given the tools and experiences they need to polish their skills and expand their knowledge. Not only will these high-potential employees be more likely to succeed, but they will naturally pull the whole firm up with them.