Avoiding the pitfalls of accelerated leadership development

We need a new generation of leaders, and here’s how we develop them quickly, says Dr Ines Wichert.

At a time when baby-boomers have been retiring in great numbers and when organisations must continue to grow, while at the same time facing unforeseen challenges in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, accelerated leadership development has taken on a new importance.

Developing high potential leaders at speed provides great benefits for both organisations and individuals. It allows organisations to grow a pool of talented leaders faster. Compared to an ‘unaided’ career, accelerated careers with carefully designed development challenges and additional support can be shortened by about 25-30%.

Organisations can develop leaders with a broader experience base, as accelerated leadership development is based on the premise of rotating high-potential employees through a range of developmental stretch assignments. 

This allows leaders to learn to deal more effectively with unfamiliar situations, uncertainty and complexity. At the same time, individuals get access to senior roles more quickly and maximise their learning, both of which are key drivers for millennial talent – the future leadership pool for organisations.  

However, accelerated leadership development comes with several pitfalls. The most significant of these are burnout, derailment in role and incomplete learning, which can lead to underdeveloped people skills and the failure of becoming a well-rounded leader who understands the finer nuances of any given situation.

Individuals get access to senior roles more quickly and maximise their learning, both of which are key drivers for millennial talent – the future leadership pool for organisations.  

Organisations can help guard against these pitfalls through four important support systems and interventions.

  1. Hold regular review meetings to avoid burnout and derailment 

Accelerated leadership development requires high-potential employees to move at pace and try new roles, taking them out of their comfort zone. Being continuously challenged with the expectation of delivering outstanding results in unfamiliar roles can increase personal pressure.

It cannot be the accelerated leader’s sole responsibility to monitor wellbeing and guard against burnout. Regular review meetings between HR, managers and the accelerated leader ensure that early warning signs of burnout and any other problems can be identified and addressed.

This also reduces the danger of costly business mistakes in situations where an emerging leader may be ill-prepared and lack support when making important business decisions in a new role.

For these conversations to be effective, an environment of trust and a clear understanding of the importance of occasional periods of consolidation must be present. Equally, it must be acceptable for a candidate to leave the accelerated development track if it is no longer right for the person. Acceleration is not an ‘all or nothing’ approach to development.

  1. Give regular feedback and monitor potential derailers

As accelerated leaders are moved from one stretch role to the next they are on a steep learning curve and under pressure to deliver outstanding results fast. This means that everyone’s focus is on the outputs they deliver, rather than the way they achieve these results and how their leadership style might impact the people around them.

It is important that emerging leaders are assessed for the effectiveness of their people management skills through regular 360 degree feedback and employee engagement surveys. This helps to highlight the importance of people management skills and ensures that these skills are valued and developed sufficiently.

Regular feedback and (re-)assessments of an accelerated leader’s potential, strengths and development needs will also highlight any other derailers that may develop and that must be addressed.

  1. Provide a consolidation year

While it may seem paradoxical, occasionally providing the opportunity for an additional year in role can help alleviate several of the pitfalls addressed above.

Extra time in role can provide breathing room and the opportunity to top up resilience which helps to guard against burnout. It also helps to consolidate learning, learn about the finer nuances of a role and reap the benefits of having invested in building a strong team.

Furthermore, both the accelerated leader as well as the organisation get the opportunity to see the impact of the decisions that the accelerated leader took in the preceding one or two years. This provides important feedback for the leader and confirms the star qualities of the person to the organisation.

As a result, organisations ensure that they are not progressing their high potential leaders on the assumption of great results, but on the actual delivery of results which will have become apparent by the third year in role.

  1. Communicate expectations to avoid disappointment and dissatisfaction

If not communicated clearly, accelerated leadership development programmes can lead to unrealistic expectations about career progression.

Where an organisation cannot provide a significant promotion on completion of a stretch assignment or development programme this may lead to disengagement and the eventual departure of the accelerated leader from the business. 

Organisations must communicate clearly from the start that while accelerated development is an investment in the emerging leader’s career, there can be no guarantee for a promotion.

They must also ensure that high-potential leaders understand that taking part in an accelerated leadership development programme does not absolve the leader from their responsibility to secure their own career opportunities.


About the author

Dr Ines Wichert is an occupational psychologist and a managing director at TalUpp, the leadership development consultancy. Her new book Accelerated Leadership Development – How to Turn your Top Talent into Leaders (Kogan Page) is out now.




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