Here’s How to Keep Your School’s Leadership Pipeline Full

It’s great to have an effective team of leaders in place, whether for a school district, a non-profit or a company. But as the organization evolves — and employees inevitably leave — the leadership team needs to be replenished. A leadership pipeline, the list of candidates who can fill those positions, is an essential tool for keeping the organization running smoothly.

Illustration of a leadership pipelineFilling that pipeline involves “constantly identifying individuals that you think would fill a particular level of leadership, all the way down through management,” said Aaron Elder, CEO and co-founder of Crelate, which provides a recruiting tool for search firms.

You don’t have to be a manager or an executive to benefit from knowing the fundamentals of filling leadership pipelines. If you’re an ambitious teacher or assistant principal, for instance, you need to know how organizations fill their leadership pipelines so you can be among the people they’re looking for when opportunities arise.

External and internal candidates

The candidate list in a leadership pipeline will probably include both employees already working for the organization and external candidates.

Over the years, the pendulum has swung from focusing primarily on an internal pipeline — current employees groomed for higher-level positions — to looking more outside the organization.

Decades ago, for example, large companies were known for in-depth leadership training programs. As budgets got tighter and lifetime employment with one organization grew less common, companies cut back since they didn’t want to be training someone who would ultimately leave.

“Over time, the model for a lot of people became, ‘I’ll just wait for someone else to train them, and then I’ll hire them,’ ” said Mark Barrett, chief customer officer and co-founder of Crelate. However, relying only on external hires to fill leadership positions can also be problematic. “I think nowadays, it has to be both.”

This requires a sustained commitment to looking both inside and outside the organization.

“Developing an internal pipeline is a 52-week, 365-day-a year proposition,” said Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half.

Read on for experts’ tips for developing a strong leadership pipeline:

Start with your current team

“You’ve got to assess the team, the players that you have, and what their core strengths are,” said Syed Hussain, vice president with Robert Half Finance & Accounting. “You want to hire somebody who is going to complement the strengths that they have.”

If your team has strong analytical skills but isn’t as good at communicating, consider hiring someone with specific skills in communication, for example.

“Most hiring managers are not doing that,” Hussain said. “They typically work off a job description that has been put out by somebody in HR.”

Keep future leaders with the organization

When hiring, consider not only a candidate’s ability to fill your immediate opening, but also the person’s potential for future leadership. Then, of course, you need to keep your employees engaged so they stay.

“How do you retain and grow them?” Elder said. “I don’t think this nut has been cracked yet. I don’t think people want to go back and do the level of investment required to do it the old way, and people don’t like passive learning” such as relying solely on online training as a substitute.

If you have a solid leadership pipeline internally, ask yourself what you are doing to develop those people. Consider putting them in formal training programs, sending them to conferences or connecting them with a mentor.

Help employees help themselves

Some leadership development ideas come from employees as they pursue their long-term career goals. It helps to have someone in the organization who can help employees with their career development, identifying training programs that would help them advance, for example, and connecting employees with mentors.

“The employee has to be driven enough to look at the position that they want and work backward from it” to figure out what they need to get there, Barrett said.

Build your external network

For the external pipeline, it’s important to have a recruiting and networking strategy.

“Who do you have in your network that can take over? That’s succession planning in a nutshell,” McDonald said.

Building your network can mean connecting with colleagues from outside your organization — at conferences or by becoming active in a professional association, for example — so you get to know people you could ask about openings.

McDonald also recommends keeping in touch with employees who have left.

“Maybe they left you because they got a great opportunity, but now that they’ve developed new skills and you’re aware of those skills because you’re staying in touch with them, they may come back in a more senior position,” McDonald said.

Clarify your communication strategy

Should you tell employees they have been identified as potential future leaders? There are different schools of thought; what works in one organization may not work in another. For example, if the employee enters a formal internal training program, it will presumably be obvious both to employees in the program and those not in it. However, it may be possible to give employees the training they need without a formal label.

“If you have individuals that you are spending time with and are a mentor to, they feel appreciated,” McDonald said.

Commit the time

“The major mistake people make is that they don’t spend time on it,” McDonald said. “As soon as an opening comes up, they’re assuming that someone is going to be knocking on their door.” And while it may be true that someone will apply, with unemployment relatively low right now, it may not be someone with the qualifications you’re looking for.

“Don’t make the mistake of not having a leadership pipeline built,” McDonald said. “It’s going to take you longer than you think to fill the job.”

Follow through

“It’s very important to have this as part of your objectives: How am I doing on my succession plan? Who are those people that I have identified as potential successors to key positions within my organization?” McDonald said. “Those questions, if you go through them on a quarterly basis and you’re honest, will guide you to a good leadership pipeline.”

Just because you have a solid leadership pipeline doesn’t mean you will automatically choose one of those candidates when a position comes open, of course.

“It gives you a good starting point,” McDonald said. “You are still encouraged to go out and conduct a search or to open it up to other employees. You never know what you might find.”

And of course, there’s no guarantee that just because someone was on your list of high-potential employees — whether they were aware of it or not — that means they will accept a leadership role. “You might have one or more of your high-potential successors say, ‘I’m not interested at this point,’ ” McDonald said.

And what of the concern that investing in internal employees could simply mean you are training your competitors’ future leaders? “If you don’t invest in those people, they’re going to leave,” McDonald said. “If you do invest in them, the chances of them staying are greater. Do you want to play a defensive game or an offensive game?”

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