As Simon Sinek once said, “Leadership is not about the next election — it’s about the next generation.”
As the leader of a company, you’re responsible for steering the ship. You’re tasked with shaping the company’s vision, and you assume responsibility for its fate. For some, doing this alone may seem preferable — but it’s not sustainable.
In fact, as your company grows, one of your most important jobs will be identifying and preparing its next generation of leaders — those who can help turn your ship into an armada and ensure that your long-term vision for the company remains intact.
It’s not easy, and the steps required won’t always seem comfortable or intuitive. But it’s critical to your company’s ultimate success.
Here’s how you prepare the next generation of leaders to be ready to take the wheel.
1. Identify candidates with leadership potential
Before I joined Aditya, I worked for a man named Krish, who remains my role model to this day. Almost everything I know about leadership, I learned from him. He taught me the importance of taking responsibility and of showcasing empathy when working with others.
He also taught me what leadership traits I should look for in employees I’m considering for leadership roles. I’ve since corroborated his advice with my own experience.
Here’s what I look for in candidates when considering whether or not they have leadership potential:
- He or she shows interest in taking on responsibility. The first thing I look for in potential leaders is whether they are inspired to lead and are enthusiastic enough about the work to want to take on more responsibility. Becoming a leader entails taking on more responsibility; candidates for leadership have to prove they can handle that.
- He or she is comfortable working with other people. It is not enough to be enthusiastic or smart — potential leaders must also be empathetic, patient, and inspiring. If I see an employee who dominates group projects or proves uninterested in helping others understand the “why” underlying the work, I know he or she won’t be a good fit.
- He or she listens to other people. Often, people with the enthusiasm, grit, and intelligence required of leadership are also convinced that they know best. This is counter-productive. As a leader, you learn the best solutions and ideas often come from those around you. If you can’t listen to other people, you’ll limit your potential effectiveness and deflate your teammates’ investment in their jobs.
These traits comprise a baseline. If a person you’re considering as a potential leader doesn’t possess them, you can assume they won’t be a good fit.
2. Give candidates responsibility, but with boundaries
Leadership is not something that can be taught in a classroom. It is developed over time.
The only way for potential leaders to learn how to lead is to give them some tempered responsibility — meaning you as the head of your company or team need to learn when to let go.
First, try giving your candidate ownership over a short project or small team. Help them understand what you’re trying to achieve by giving them this responsibility, affirm their autonomy, and let them know it’s okay if they fail. This will ensure they have the creative freedom required of transcendent leadership as well as the confidence required to take risks.
Then, see how they do.
Now, if it turns out that your candidate really doesn’t have what it takes to lead – say they miss a deadline or sour client relationships – take the wheel back for a little bit. Help your candidate understand what they did wrong so they can improve in the future.
Worst-case scenario: you gradually release the candidate back to what they were doing before. But if they showcase encouraging potential, now you know they have what it takes to move on to the next step.
3. Allow candidates to assemble and manage their own team
The last step in grooming future leaders is giving them full autonomy on a large project, or in managing their own large team. If they succeed in doing so, you know you can trust them with continuing your company’s vision.
There are a few key things to watch out for on this step. The first is that your candidate puts together their team with equanimity and appreciation for diversity. This means setting politics and personal loyalty aside and focusing solely on picking the best people.
Often, first-time managers will fill out their teams with people they are friends with or whose involvement is politically expedient. This is not in the best interests of the company and should serve as a red flag that that person is not ready to assume larger responsibility.
Additionally, once their team has been assembled, your potential leaders should prove themselves comfortable delegating responsibilities and granting creative autonomy.
An essential element of leadership is getting the most out of the people around you. Dominating every task or completing every project yourself achieves the opposite. Moreso, it proves that that person can’t handle the power that comes with leadership.
Grooming leaders in this way requires an almost superhuman amount of patience.
You’ll need to accept that the people you train might do things differently than you. And you’ll have to accept that the process takes time.
My mentor, Krish, worked with me for years before I was ready to lead a company on my own. I worked with my current head of marketing – a deferential ex-military man with lots of promise but a fear of risk – for months before he felt confident enough to be creative on his own.
But as the captain of your ship, the time and energy you spend grooming future leaders is one of the smartest investments you can make. In fact, it’s an investment you have to make if you want to protect the integrity of your company’s vision and purpose.
Vice Chairman at Aditya Educational Institutions (2009-present)