Emerging leaders are the future, so let’s equip them for leadership now

May 30th, 2022


The fast-tracking to senior leadership is a key investment for many companies I work with and is driven by succession planning for retiring senior leaders and the evolving emphasis on roles that are now seen as business-critical that did not exist five or ten years ago.

People in roles such as big data analytics, ESG, emerging technologies and artificial intelligence are being earmarked for senior leadership roles. Ten years ago business intelligence analysis was seen as a support service and a back-office function, now those doing that job are an integrated part of client-facing teams because of the value and innovation they can bring to client problems.

I am sure I am not alone in not really knowing my SaaS from my AIs or my UX from my machine learning elbow. Equally, when I asked a group of peers if they knew what ESG actually stands for, the answers were varied. Yet these are all having growing importance on day to day business operations, and businesses are increasingly promoting those who manage them to their boards, meaning would-be ‘middle managers’ are suddenly becoming directors.

A recent study by IBM of global CTOs (chief technology officers) found that the majority had reached that position in under 10 years, from the start of their working life. By and large, that puts them in their early to mid-thirties. Similar research by software developer STX Next had 20% reaching the role in under five years.

Tech start-ups are being founded by people in their 20s and 30s, even some of the biggest tech giants – Twitter, Microsoft and Google – have global CEOs in their 30s and early 40s. As for ESG, this is something that didn’t even exist as a phrase two years ago. According to a recruiter who is looking to fill senior ESG roles for a number of companies, director-level roles are being snapped up by people who are 5-10 years ahead of where they should be.

The progressive culture of innovation that is driving the importance of these roles is great, from a leadership perspective though, this means they have missed out on the experience of managing teams as they rise up the ranks as ‘emerging leaders’. It is therefore important to help these emerging leaders develop the skills needed so that their influence and impact can flourish.

I have recently been working with a number of younger leaders, as well as more experienced leaders being managed by – or working alongside – their younger peers. Here are some of the themes that have arisen:


Discomfort managing people with more experience

Whilst age is just a number, for many the idea of coming in and managing someone who has the advantage of age and experience over you can be challenging.

In a recent conversation with a young leader, he talked about the discomfort he felt trying to motivate someone he had “inherited” who he was finding difficult to manage.  His colleague was an expert in his field and 15 years his senior.  When I asked him what the ambitions of this team member were, he revealed that ‘management’ had decided he would not be promoted to a senior leadership role. They felt that whilst his expertise was valuable, his fixed views and resistance to change had given him the reputation of ‘being hard to manage’. What was clear was that previous managers had avoided giving the expert this feedback, so he was losing motivation through lack of progression but was unaware of why, or how his perceived attitude was impacting his career progression, despite his talent.

We talked about the need to get to know this team member on a personal level by going off-site and talking to him about his ambitions and motivations.   Part of this though had to also include the young leader being clear on the wider vision for the business and explaining to him what the critical success factors for the team were and how his strengths could support this. Mutual respect and honesty about what was important for all parties was going to be key.


Always On Culture 

Some of the emerging leaders I have been working with are fast-paced and create cultures like this as they like to recruit people like them. Generation Z and younger Millennials were born into and grew up in a digital age; they are used to doing multiple things at the same time. For them, ‘always on’ is a way of life and they depend on smartphones, tablets and watches as essential tools for managing their lives. These devices store all their documents and allow them to find information at the touch of a button and keep in contact with friends, family and colleagues 24/7.  This however means they are often slaves to those devices.

In a recent meeting with a fast-paced and successful leader, I pointed out to him how often he referred to his phone during our meeting and the impact this could have on others.

This ‘always on’ habit not only affects team members who often don’t get the attention they need to develop, but it can also impact our personal relationships.  I will often encourage people to introduce ‘phone-free zones’ at home and in the office, so they can be with family or team members and give them their full attention.


Understanding the value of time

Time is one of our most precious commodities, but one that high achievers of all ages often don’t value highly enough, for themselves or others.

I talk to clients regularly about the importance of slowing down to speed up. High achievers are often relentless in the pursuit of their goals, going from success to success without acknowledging or celebrating them. This is often linked to the fear of failure that is ingrained in them, and they reason that as long as they carry on succeeding, they will achieve their ambitions.

In a conversation recently with an outstanding young leader who has had a rapid rise to success, it was clear how little time he allowed himself to sit quietly and reflect. Decisions he was making were being made with such speed that he wasn’t really allowing him the space to carefully consider all possible answers. We discussed the need for him to build regular quiet time into his diary as a repeating ‘do not disturb’ appointment and sticking to keeping it free as reflection time. This is something that seasoned leaders are good at doing as they understand the value of protecting this time.


High Achiever’s Fear of Failure

The mindset of ‘high achievers’ and their relentless pursuit of goals is a big factor in their success and a valuable leadership trait, however, when taken too far can lead to burnout.

When you are used to success and your track record has been consistently high, it can be tough stepping into a new role that might have different measures of what success looks like and where your results might not look as spectacular against previous performance.

Stepping into a senior role at an early age can often set off imposter syndrome. This can be settled temporarily by achieving great results quickly. However, if you perceive that success is being reached more slowly than you would normally like, it can negatively impact your confidence.

I recently worked with a young woman in the finance industry who had taken on a new leadership role that involved her working in a new area of the business. The profile of clients she was working with changed and she was dealing mostly with older men. She acknowledged that she had been struggling to gain their respect and, as a consequence, didn’t feel like she was getting the right results. Doubts were creeping in as to whether or not she was really good enough for the new role.  Interestingly, she is meeting all her targets but she is not “smashing them” as she usually does, which is leaving her constant ‘inner critic’ the freedom to erode her confidence and wellbeing.

The experience of managing challenges and setbacks is a critical part of developing into a resilient leader, so building up mental fitness to quieten the saboteurs that can hijack us has been a key part of our coaching.


Navigating Difficult Conversations

In order to have the strength of mind to give critical feedback and ask delving questions, you have to have the courage to lean into potential conflict situations, rather than seek to avoid them.

Conflict is a word that is often assumed to have negative connotations, but the ability to be able to reframe conflict as a positive opportunity to build authentic and lasting relationships is important. Understanding how to challenge team members in a constructive manner and welcome being constructively challenged in return will lead to an ambitious and transparent culture.

How you handle being challenged publicly can often increase your impact and ability to influence those around you. The natural human reaction of some high achievers to being challenged is to be defensive.  Being able to remain calm and to disarm a situation by showing curiosity and a willingness to listen takes maturity and experience. It is an impressive leadership quality and one that, with practice, can increase your gravitas.


The future is emerging so train your talent early

A global client in the insurance field is taking great lengths to build a collaborative and innovative culture and developing their emerging leaders has become a priority, which was a reason why during the pandemic when rapid change was required, they had an army of young leaders who stepped into leadership roles probably quicker than they had expected but due to the training and coaching received many now are in senior leadership roles and playing a significant part in the growth of the business.

They recognise it is a 2-way process of investing in their young leaders and giving them the voice to present new ideas to current and future problems.  In a competitive talent market this will be a reason why people join an organisation – and to retain them becomes a continual challenge.

For companies that see the importance of emerging skill sets and job functions, it is vital that they also understand the importance of helping the people who fill those roles get to grips with their new management status. They may have the skills and experience to meet the growing reliance on technologies and social issues, but without the ability to lead and motivate others, the impact and growth of a business will be restricted.

If you would like to talk to me about how we can help the emerging leaders in your business gain the skills needed to make the right impact, then please do get in touch at team@potentialplus-int.com.

To learn more about what our clients have gained from our coaching we have lots of testimonials that you might find interesting.

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