4 Keys To Building Your Leadership Bench Strength

Rhonda was visibly upset. Upset to the point that she was thinking about quitting.

A sixteen-year veteran of the pharmaceutical industry, Rhonda had risen through the ranks within the marketing department of her company. Two years ago, she had skipped a level and been promoted to Senior Vice President. Ten years younger than her peers, Rhonda stood out for her drive and her ability to build high performing teams.  

Just one month earlier, Rhonda had applied for the newly vacated role of Chief Marketing Officer. She was bursting with excitement about the opportunity and her next career step.

Rhonda didn’t get the job.  She was told she lacked the skill of communicating to the Board and external stakeholders. She was also told she needed experience in leading a global team. Still simmering from this feedback, Rhonda felt stuck.  

“I don’t know what to do. How am I supposed to get these skills unless I have a role like this? And how can I get this kind of role unless I get these skills?”

Rhonda’s experience is not unique. Her quandary is based on a common situation: Self-led development. Up until this point, Rhonda had navigated her career advancement entirely on her own, through sheer force of will and work ethic.  For Rhonda and many other self-developed leaders, this style is adequate – until it isn’t.  

Development Dimensions International (DDI), in their recently released CEO Leadership Report 2021 report that only 35% of senior executives received any coaching during their transition to their senior role. Even fewer (just 21% of all senior executives) were assigned a formal mentor or coach. Additionally, fewer than half of executives (49%) said they went through an assessment to identify their strengths and areas for improvement.

The pain of this development gap isn’t only felt by leaders like Rhonda, who aren’t being developed, but by CEOs as well.  One of the biggest challenges facing CEOs today is the quality of their next generation of leadership. DDI found that only one in three CEOs (34%) say their front-line leadership quality is “very good” or “excellent.” Only 38% of CEOs rate their mid-level leadership as being of high quality.


What can be done to best develop leadership bench strength?  DDI’s research uncovered four key practices, in order of impact:

1.     High-quality internal coaching.

Why do leaders need coaching? As Marcia Reynolds, author of Coach the Person, Not the Problem writes, “For the same reason that you can’t tickle yourself. Your brain resists self-imposed testing of thoughts and reactions.”

High achievers in every discipline depend on coaches to improve performance. Even Olympic-level and world-class performers have blind spots. A good coach helps you see things you can’t see for yourself. Ideally, every direct report would have a leader who can effectively coach and give feedback. Unfortunately, the data reveal there’s plenty room for improvement for leaders as coaches. Only 31% of people think their leaders communicate well, and even only 61% of C-Suite leaders self-report that they are effective in communicating and interacting with others.   

2.     Fair and accurate systems for accelerating talent from a diverse pool.

Innovation experts know that if you’re seeking the highest quality ideas, it’s best to have the largest quantity of ideas to select from. If you want the highest quality leaders, it’s best to have the largest and most diverse pool of candidates to pull from.

Talking about diversity is one thing. Living it is another. Orly Lynn, Head of Global Inclusion and Diversity at Commvault says, “Diversity is not a program. Diversity is like any other business initiative in an organization, and it must be treated as a business imperative. It will only begin to work if it’s woven as part of the strategy of the organization, and into everything you do.” This includes recruitment, onboarding, and talent development. DDI’s study found that CEOs who felt their organization recruits and promotes leaders from a diverse pool across all functions are significantly more confident in the quality of their leaders. 

3.     High-quality leadership development programs.

To create high-quality leaders, leaders need opportunities to learn the skills that will help them succeed. Leadership development programs can be formal (classroom or online training) or informal (on-the-job mentoring).   Rhonda would have benefited from mentoring in communicating to Boards and leading global teams. 

Every leadership development program should be judged on its ability to help leaders deliver the requisite business results, rather than traditional “smile sheets”. In today’s remote and digital world, more organizations are using microlearning in an asynchronous format. This provides the leader/learner the means to easily digest bite-size pieces of new content and immediately apply the learning on the job.  

4.     High-quality leadership assessment and feedback programs.

Developing talent and a leadership bench shouldn’t be left to gut instinct. Humans are notoriously biased. DDI reports, “Given the value that CEOs place on the fairness of leadership promotions and development, it’s no surprise that assessment plays a major role in their view of leadership quality.”  

Leveraging objective data makes a huge difference in effective talent development. DDI found that among organizations who use objective data to make strategic talent decisions, 64% of tenured CEOs rated their senior teams as effective, which is more than double the average. 

Coaching, diversity, development, and assessment.  If these four practices sound like common sense, that’s because they are.   Yet, the data is clear: What’s common sense is not common organizational practice. Implementing these practices can help you develop the leaders that you need, and that your employees have been waiting for.

The Tycoon Herald