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Grow Leaders From Within

Ask any CEO what they think are the most important aspects in growing their business and many of them will cite strong leadership. But when you have a gap in leadership, should you build that leadership from within or bring in someone new? 

Research suggests that hiring someone from outside the company into a leadership role is more likely to result in that person not being a long-term fit. If growing and promoting talent from within leads to greater success, it would make sense that most companies would have robust leadership development programs in place to cultivate these efforts. However, when surveyed, 36 percent of companies stated they did not have any sort of formal leadership development strategy in place. 

If we know that internal talent is the bench of our future leadership, then why do so many companies fail to invest the resources and structure to facilitate a leadership development program? 

Companies big and small struggle not only to create programs that align with succession planning for top talent but also in the implementation of such programs. They may hire consultants who facilitate various aspects of the program, but fail to have one person who drives the overall goal. In that situation, a lot of time and money are spent on “leadership development” activities, but senior leaders become frustrated with the lack of progress in grooming the next level of leaders. 

At GL group, we have found—through much trial and error—the power in owning our own leadership development efforts. We ensure that these efforts are tied back to current leadership gaps and future organizational needs. In addition, our program must meet the learning needs of our employees. 

Research shows that people learn best through 70 percent hands-on experience, 20 percent mentoring, and 10 percent formal classroom learning. However, many companies try to teach leadership by sending employees to a one-time training session with one-off scenarios, as opposed to thoughtfully crafting a program that piggybacks off each learning moment and building on the employee’s past experiences. One-time training experiences typically don’t offer any real follow-up or continued action, so they aren’t effective in the long term.

We operated in this way for many years at GL group. We would promote someone from within, send them to a training on leadership, and be floored when it didn’t work out. It wasn’t until we started being intentional about how we grew our talent in a way that made sense for our business and our culture that we were able to truly craft various learning moments into an overall development experience. 


Leadership development should be a destination trip, not a weekend getaway. Now, our Emergent Leader Program (ELP) reflects not only our culture and organizational needs, but also covers all the ways people learn best, so that everyone on our future leadership bench has an opportunity to learn and hone their skills. We make the process around the program challenging. Those interested must complete an application answering essay questions about their leadership skills and volunteerism and go through interviews with members of the executive team. Their current leader is interviewed, as well, all with the goal of selecting those who are capable of meeting the program’s demands and who have a high potential to fill a leadership gap in the future. Those who are chosen for the program are celebrated and begin the 12-month learning journey excited and nervous about what the next year holds. 

When developing your program, focus on ways to give high potentials the education and experience that they will need to be successful in a future role. Study those leaders internally who have mastered their roles and the culture. Look at the skills these leaders possess, and create learning experiences around building these skills. The program should be something employees strive to be a part of. Current leaders can help generate excitement by creating a lot of buzz around sharing the program details and content and including those who would be a strong fit for the program, getting them excited for the opportunity ahead. 

One example of how ELP has been successful is in how we’ve leveraged networking. Networking and the ability to build relationships is a common sought-after leadership competency. We wanted to build on this with our future leaders and weaved in a mentoring component to our leadership development program. Each emergent leader is given a mentor from the executive team who they meet with monthly, as well as a leader within the business community. Both mentors provide guidance and help our emergent leaders build confidence and relationship-building skills. These mentors become trusted advisors and are an important part of the emergent leaders’ continued growth. 

We also ensure that our ELP participants receive outside training. Internal learning is a great way to target specific talent gaps and teach your culture, but there is also value in sending your future leaders on “field trips” to learn from other businesses. In our program, emergent leaders are sent to Disney’s Leadership Institute. This off-site development helps connect our culture with that of a much different business. Having this time away from their day-to-day work helps build creativity and gives these leaders insight as to how another business operates, which is helpful as they return to their own work. 

No matter how you choose to facilitate an internal leadership development program, simply having one is crucial to long-term talent growth. Start small and look for ways to incorporate sustainable and consistent programs. Your program will naturally develop from there, incorporating the most important pieces of your company’s culture and goals.

© 2017 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Lisa Whealon is the chief people officer for GL group, a premier provider of literature and educational materials. Whealon has been with GL group for seven years and currently oversees the HR function, including talent development and acquisition, organizational design, and internal communications for the four-division company.  Culture is king at GL group, and Whealon leads the people initiatives, which includes creating a new WOW! benefit every year. She has helped launch GL group’s Emergent Leader Program and GL University and assists in the support of WOW! Benefits, such as Sandy Vacations, the Marcia Jaffe Scholarship, and Bring-Your-Baby-to-Work. Whealon serves on the Forbes HR Council and is a member of the local and national SHRM and ATD chapters.  Prior to her work at GL group, Whealon worked as an executive team leader for a big box retailer and was responsible for business operations and talent development and lead key people initiatives.
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