Opinion: Strategies for growing senior leaders

by Karen Gately26 Apr 2016
Many organisations invest in the development of aspiring leaders and those in the early stages of their management careers.  All too often, however, senior leaders are overlooked and little is done to deliberately influence their development. The absence of a clear succession plan for the CEO position is common. 

Even CEOs must keep raising their game if they are to keep pace with the demands of their role. Leading any organisation into the future requires agility and learning.  

The 2014 Stanford Report on Senior Executive Succession Planning and Talent Development found less than half of the organisations surveyed have a formal process for developing successor candidates for key executive positions. Only 25% believe there is an adequate pool of ready successor candidates for the CEO position at their companies.

Growing critical capabilities

Identifying the most relevant and appropriate development strategies for senior executives begins by understanding how each person and the team needs to improve and grow. Begin by reflecting on the effectiveness of the senior leadership team and each person on it. Reflect broadly on the technical, interpersonal and professional capabilities required. 

Recognise the extent to which executives have the ability to effectively apply their capabilities to get the job done and contribute to the team’s success. Identify ways in which the team work effectively to drive outcomes and opportunities to improve. 

The Harvard Business School together with leading executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles looked at the demand of executive leadership roles and reported “one strikingly consistent finding: once people reach the C-suite, technical and functional expertise matters less than leadership skills and a strong grasp of business fundamentals”.

Critically understand the context within which senior leaders operate and target those competencies most likely to enable success. For example, are the leaders of your business required to excel in a rapidly growing or changing environment or is their primary focus maturing an established business? While the capabilities a senior leader brings may serve them well in one scenario, a shift in circumstances can dramatically impact upon their ability to deliver. 

Development strategies

Attending industry events or conferences and networking are common example senior leaders provide when asked how they keep learning. While unquestionably valuable these forums typically provide limited opportunity for real learning reflected in behavioural and capability change. Great for building awareness, providing fresh ideas and making new contacts, relevant conferences should form part of a broader and targeted development program for CEOs and their direct report team. 

Leadership circles

Bring groups of senior leaders together to share their experiences and learn from one another. Whether provided by a third party organisation or facilitated internally, leadership groups that meet regularly can provide powerful learning opportunities. When leaders feel connected to the group and are willing to be open and engage, the impact on their development can be immense.

The most effective forums are those that provide the opportunity for participants to seek input to the challenges and opportunities they face. As relationships and knowledge of one another’s team or businesses grow, leaders are able to provide valuable insights, ideas and moral support. The role of the facilitator is to create an open environment, encourage contributions, and guide and prompt discussions. 

Executive development programs

Encourage and support leaders to undertake development programs that advance their credentials and, more importantly, grow their capabilities. Invest in those programs that provide far more than theoretical perspectives.  Look for institutions and courses that offer executives the opportunity to apply lessons to their role and organisation. 

While distance learning is a preferred and more accessible option for many busy executives, the value of ‘contact time’ shouldn’t be underestimated. Encourage programs that provide some element of face-to-face interaction with other students and academic staff. Even periodic attendance ‘on campus’ and time away from the workplace can provide invaluable opportunity to realise value from the program. 


Connect senior leaders with other experienced people either more advanced in their careers or able to offer specialist expertise. For a successful mentoring relationship to form, mutual trust and respect is essential.  The ideal mentor is someone able to influence the thoughts, feelings, actions and ultimately success of each executive.

While at times it is possible to orchestrate a connection that works, success is most likely to come from the executive identifying his or her own mentor. Create networking opportunities, make introductions and guide executives on how to find the right mentor for them.  Actively encourage mentoring relationships and check in with senior leaders to see how these relationships are working for them. 

“Mentors are role models who have 'been there and done that'. They can offer timely, context-specific counsel drawn from experience; wisdom; and networks that are highly relevant to the problems to be solved.” 
CEOs need Mentors Too: Harvard Business Review

Build diverse careers

Experience is the greatest teacher of all. No matter how well constructed and delivered no academic program can compete with the learning that comes from assuming a ‘hands on’ role. Provide leaders the opportunity to broaden or change their portfolio of responsibilities. Develop the future CEO from among your ranks by growing not only the depth but also breath of your leadership teams talents and experience. 

While specialist expertise is important, with the right team and support of the organisation a talented executive can be successful in a senior role outside of their areas of experience. Look for options aligned to the career aspirations of each executive. Desiring to not only succeed but thrive in the role is essential to their ability to maintain the level of energy and focus inevitably required to grow into the role over time. 

A move into another senior role in the business is a great way to create stretch moments exposing leaders to excellent learning opportunities. Simply changing roles however is not enough in itself. A well-developed approach to growing senior leaders should be a tailored combination of job assignments, coaching, mentoring, and other regular targeted development initiatives.

Karen Gately is a HR and people management specialist and author of the book, The People Manager’s Toolkit.