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November | Leadership Development | Read time: calculating...

Identifying and Building Your Leadership Bench Strength


While watching the FIFA World Cup recently, it occurred to me that sporting teams and organisations have a lot in common. They both have goals and visions of achieving success. They both have different functions and roles that enable them to deliver on this vision. And they both have a bench of players ready to substitute when needed.

Over the years, more and more importance has been placed on the bench of a soccer team. These people are your finishers, impact players, or development players.

These are the players that will be on the pitch for the final minutes of the game to help seal the match or steal a game from the jaws of defeat. No longer is a football team made up of 11 starting players, it is a squad of players that contribute to the team’s success.

The same can be said about organisations and their leadership bench strength yet only 50% of leading organizations surveyed by Gartner in 2019 were confident to lead the organization in to the future.

In this blog post, you’ll understand the importance of building leadership bench strength within your organisation.

Now more than ever it is important for an organization to develop a quality leadership bench that is equipped to deal with several different stakeholders that demand broader transparency and accountability.

What could be more important to the long-term success of an organization than the choice and development of future leaders?

But still, there is a missing link between succession planning and where the organization is going. Yes there are perfectly crafted high potential lists of candidates who could fill a leadership position; however, they aren’t created with a look to the future or an understanding of what the business will need to deliver its vision.

Two female senior leaders discussing business strategy

What is the problem?

The issues arises when many organisations approach their succession planning like a mechanical process of identifying high potential candidates, and matching them to the roles they might fill. What they fail to recognise is that this process is too narrow to uncover the skills needed to deliver business success and can derail any future leader. This approach will clash with organisational efforts to transform employees to managers, and managers to leaders. There is a growing need not only to develop current leaders, but also to develop future leaders through the acceleration of leadership development programs targeted at future leadership skills.

See the following link for more info about our Extend leadership development program.

Despite advancements and increasing investment in leadership development programs, most organizations struggle to have the required number of ready-made leaders needed to meet current and future business needs.

Today’s leader capabilities and competencies have rarely changed, whilst the operating environment and landscape a leader must navigate has changed drastically. It is no secret that we are in an era of unprecedented change and ambiguity with new emerging technologies, generational shifts in attitudes, and dare I say it, COVID-19 a reality.

All these contribute to the constantly changing and evolving landscape that challenges and puts pressure on organisations.


What exactly is a leadership bench?

Having a strong bench is not necessarily something you would link with leadership and an organisation. However, it is essentially the way organisations prepare their leadership teams or leadership pipeline.

The term bench strength, as defined by Wiktionary, “arises from sporting teams and relates to the quality and number of players available to substitute during a game”, or season for that matter. People on the bench have been coined the finishers and give teams the best opportunity at winning.

Similarly, a leadership bench strength can be defined by the organization’s ability to immediately fill a critical leadership position with  talented internal candidates in order to maintain business performance and drive success.

A team of soccer players sitting on a bench

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Managing Vice President of Gartner, Sari Wilde highlights that having a quality bench, and a solid succession process is critical for any organization as they are faced with several emerging challenges, including unparalleled expectations of broader transparency, increased public pressure, automation, and digitization, evolving skills and competencies, and a new generation entering and leaving the workforce. Such issues are a detriment to a leader’s success and the organisation’s efforts in developing talent.

To foster the development of potential successors, organisations need to build action plans to grow their leadership bench strength. A strong leadership bench – or pool of future leaders ready to shift into leadership roles – facilitates the organisation’s succession processes and leadership development programs. If executed well, it ensures the continuity in leadership whilst also avoiding vacancies, periods of ineffective leadership while new hires are trained, and encourages employees to stay.


How to identify your bench strength?

Your leadership bench strength may be a difficult thing to measure or quantify. It might feel arduous to measure the current supply of leaders and how you increase the pool of candidates. While there are numerous leadership assessments to help organizations to assess leadership talent there is no set measure or benchmark to assess your organization against. A good place to start is to understand your organizational structure and how it links to your organizational strategy.

Identify key positions

Just like any coach of a football team, the organisation needs to identify key positions that are critical to the business success and achieving the vision. By identifying the few positions that are critical to the implementation of the organization’s strategy we can begin to develop a leadership pipeline for the future.

For too long, succession planning has just been focused at the executive or C-suite level. It is critical that leadership development and succession planning occurs holistically across the organisation – focusing on developing a critical mass of future leaders within the organization.


Testing your bench

It is impractical to have a plan in place for every role across the organisation. However, there is a quick way to test your leadership bench strength. Simply, write down the key positions and attempt to name one or two current employees that would be able to fill those roles. Alternatively, write down current leaders and do the same exercise.

The trick to this exercise is to look broadly across the organisation and to not just stay within the function of that role. This is a quick fire way to understand the strength of your existing leadership bench and where the gaps may lie to start developing it. Fortunately, there are many ways that you can develop your future leaders and accelerate your company’s bench strength.

Developing your bench strength

Although all companies are different, the principles of developing a strong leadership bench strength remain the same. If we want to develop future leaders, it is critical to look ahead and identify any gaps. By doing this we can craft and mould development plans that address these gaps and offer individual opportunities for growth along the way.

A cartoon superhero in a cape

1. Look beyond the here and now

To establish an effective leadership pipeline, it is critical to understand where a company wants to go and the skills needed to get there. A football coach will always have one eye towards the next game, year and World Cup when developing future talent. Thus there is an importance to align leadership development strategy with the organisational strategy, it is the most critical step that is often overlooked by companies.

There is a need to keep an eye out for the future and connect that with a plan to develop the capabilities and experiences to allow employees to succeed.

On the other hand, it is also important to continually assess roles you may not need in the future as some leaders can assume that because the role is here now it will be needed.

Direct your investment into developing high potential employees for roles that are going to suit the future direction of the organisation rather than those that won’t be required.

Click the following link to learn more about the tools we use to assess high potential employees.

2. Scan for opportunities

Back to the football coach. They will always be scanning and looking for talent not only for now but in the future.

Once we understand the vision and the skills need to get there, the next step is to identify individuals who may be interested in progressing or have the potential to step up into a leadership position.

Before you slot them in, you must make sure they have the skill set required and ensure you have more than one potential successor for each role. It might surprise you, but someone you may have identified may actually decide they aren’t ready or interested. It is important to have a plan b.

One way of doing this is to regularly engage with other leaders across the business – increasing cross functional knowledge of who you have on the team. This will not only give you a holistic view of the organisation, it will aid the creation of individual development plans that offer certain opportunities.

3. Focus on development

Employees are an organisation’s biggest asset. Without staff, there would be no business at all. Using the football analogy again, a coach wouldn’t neglect developing their players to face the challenges in the upcoming season. The same must apply to organisations.

For more information on developing strong leaders, see our leadership development consulting service.

Every employee offers a unique set of skills that supports where the organisation wants to go. Hence why it is important that organisations and senior leaders spend some time developing their own employees. This ensures the company is ready to face the challenges of the future.

By coupling leadership development and succession planning, an organisation can create a well-oiled system that can identify the skills needed and also develop them along the way.

A good starting point for an organisation to signal their intent that they are focused on development is to use mentoring conversations. These conversations can be the catalyst to a more large scale development program in the future; however, they are just the beginning and should never be treated as once offs.

By spending time with your employees and focusing on specific activities that excite them, you can start to gauge where they see their career going. At the same time, you are showing them the path. It will also be an opportunity to understand if there is an emotional interest in leadership roles in the future.

In turn, when organisations invest in focused development of their employees, it can set off a chain of positivity. Not only does it continue the leadership pipeline or supply chain, it signals to the employees that the organisations values them and that there is a path to succession within the business.

Related: Developing staff is a key aspect of driving a high performance culture.

Developing a strong leadership bench is not a once off occurrence. Leaders should continually be looking at ways to improve their succession planning and build their leadership team. It is the responsibility of current leaders to make time to engage in this process regularly.

Employees will stay if they know how they will gain new experience, they want to understand when they will be promoted, how they can learn more, do more and earn more. The more frequently these conversations happen, the greater the impact with less effort required.

When the FIFA World Cup is over, the 11 starting players won’t be the only ones to receive medals or celebrate success. It becomes a celebration of the team and the hard work that everyone has put in to achieve greatness.

Want to know more about developing your leadership bench strength? Book a free 30 minute consultation or get in touch today.