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The Secret Weapon Mid-Level Leaders Can Use to Unleash Potential

by Jim Kauffman, Ph.D.

The Secret Weapon Mid-Level Leaders Can Use to Unleash PotentialThe term “high potential” has been used extensively in leadership development circles, and over time has taken on a broad range of meanings. In some organizations, high potential means being ready to take on a more senior role in three to five years. Elsewhere it might be used to designate the likelihood that someone will grow and develop more quickly than others. All too often, however, high potential has become synonymous with impressive performance (or at least the perception of impressive performance) in one’s current role.

For comparison sake, let’s consider what the word potential means in the realm of mechanical physics, where things are neater and clearer than in leadership. Potential is a measure of the force or energy that has been blocked up, like a loaded spring or a pendulum ball suspended at a point above its natural resting position.

What if we were to think of leadership potential in these terms?

Rather than create endless watch lists of people who might someday take on roles of greater scope and responsibility, what if we were able to help our leaders focus on finding and removing the barriers and friction points to unlock leadership potential hidden in plain sight?

With this alternative perspective, our focus would not just be on identifying potential, but on shortening the pathway to activating and accelerating that potential to drive impact for the organization and its customers.

In mechanical physics, this is akin to converting potential energy into kinetic energy. (Disclaimer, I am not a mechanical physicist, nor have I ever played one on TV).

Senior executives often lament that they are unable to see deeper into the organization to gauge the leadership talent that exists through the ranks. Mid-level leaders, on the other hand, are in a unique position to directly observe and coach individuals who are operating in their first leadership roles.

And when these mid-level leaders have strong internal peer networks across the organization—their secret weapon for unleashing potential—untapped potential trapped in silos (functions, departments, regions, levels) can be surfaced, activated, and accelerated with greater agility. (Furthermore, when mid-level leaders use a scalable tool to surface leadership potential among individual contributors, they can better use their networks to identify first-time leader roles and stretch assignments for those specific individuals.)

What if the best development opportunity for a frontline leader is to engage with a current project or initiative in a different department or function? A well-networked mid-level leader, interested in developing her direct reports, can spot those opportunities and secure a short-term assignment for the high-potential frontline leader and thereby offer him greater visibility and consideration for future roles. At the same time, the frontline leaders’ unique knowledge and skills can be deployed to provide immediate support to the projects or initiatives to generate business impact. It would be a win for all involved!

During a recent DDI-sponsored gathering of senior HR leaders from across industries, a participant I spoke with confirmed the value of this approach, noting that the greatest development gains come with the greatest risks, and these risks are often associated with creative cross-functional assignments to accelerate growth.

Josh Bersin’s description of new organizational models highlights how these development dynamics will become increasingly common. He notes that teams will assemble and cease to exist more quickly, job descriptions and titles will become assignments and expert roles, managers will go from “owning” teams to managing projects and “sponsoring” people, and people will transition from being assigned to a job by management to being sought out and deployed based on their unique skills.

The just-released Global Leadership Forecast 2018 amplifies this view of a changing workplace by identifying six leadership megatrends that underscore the transformation. What’s more, the Forecast also found that “developing next gen leaders” is a top priority for organizations—further reinforcing the urgent need to unleash leadership potential through multiple approaches.

All this transformation points to the need for mid-level leaders to proactively develop stronger networks so that potential can be surfaced, activated, and accelerated when opportunities and projects arise. To do this, mid-level leaders must learn to expand their network beyond what they need for daily operational purposes.

Unfortunately, today’s compressed pace of work can cause leaders at all levels to narrow their attention and take a task-focused approach. So, despite the need for better connectivity and a more fluid flow of information, the way work is getting done now is actually eroding networks and inhibiting cross-channel, horizontal collaboration

How mid-level leaders can build their networks

We can help mid-level leaders strengthen their networks in three ways.

First, we can provide formal networking skill development and provide them with tools and techniques to rethink their networks and proactively take actions to improve them.

Second, we can create opportunities for mid-level leaders to network in cross-functional, cadre-based development programs or facilitated roundtable discussions to address current business challenges.

In the development programs DDI helps design and deliver for mid-level leaders, we consistently hear from participants about the value they gain from working and learning with their peers from across the enterprise. In providing feedback on one of these programs, a participant said, “This was a wonderful experience working in teams with people from different backgrounds.” Another participant offered a similar assessment of the experience: “I appreciated the opportunity to learn from others in different parts of the organization.”

Finally, we can remind mid-level leaders of their unique roles and perspectives, which allow them to surface, activate, and accelerate the deployment of leadership talent among current and emerging leaders.

Beyond just helping to compile list of names of “high potentials,” mid-level leaders can advance their organization’s efforts in a meaningful way by helping convert potential energy into kinetic energy for real impact.

Learn how DDI can help you unleash the potential of emerging leaders.

Jim Kauffman is an Executive Consultant in DDI’s Specialty Consulting group. His focus is on mid- and senior-level leadership development. When not at work, Jim spends a good deal of time spoiling his two grandsons.

Posted: 21 Feb, 2018,
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