Three Questions that Identify and Develop Leaders

I’m testing this approach with a client right now. My invitation to you is to start testing it as well. The data aren’t in, but given what I know about people, it should work. Don’t worry; it’s easy.

If you’re a business leader and your business is in it for the long-haul, you’re probably concerned about developing your next round of leaders. You either have your attention on who will replace you when you move on or who will be your eyes as your organization or division grows beyond what you can immediately see.

Whether you call this succession planning or leadership development, it’s a concern for people. It’s something that they either put resources towards or worry that they’re not doing enough about. Or worse, they don’t think about it and then wonder why their margins are shrinking and their culture is ailing as things grow past the point where they can “do it all.”

If you look at what leadership is, at it’s bare skeleton, how to develop leaders becomes obvious.

A leader is someone who has some future intention and organizes people and action around fulfilling that intention.

If that’s all a leader is, then developing a leader is as simple as:

  1. Training someone to think intentionally about the future and,
  2. Training them to organize others to act in the fulfillment of that intention.

This actually can be as simple as it sounds. What it takes to make it easy to a) recognize that all the resources you need to develop leaders are sitting there in the natural flow of work and b) put in a few behaviors that will make the most of those naturally occurring opportunities. In fact, you don’t even need to do the first part. Whether you believe or not doesn’t matter. Just be coach-able and, as they say, fall on the sword.

There are three questions to ask your developing talent that (I think) can serve the basis of your entire leadership development program. Ready?

  1. What intention am I trying to fulfill?
  2. What are some actions that will forward that intention?
  3. Who can help?

That’s it. Now let’s talk about why it should work and how to make it work better.

Humans are an interesting species because we can imagine a future and then work towards making that imagined future a reality. An intention is just an imagined future. However, the work of realizing that imagined future always happens right now. And now and now and now. As followers, we put faith in our leaders and get to work doing the work of now. We are aligned with their intention and believe our actions now will move it forward.

Good leaders continually reinforce what the work of now is for by connecting it to that imagined future. They make sure their followers are ongoingly present to the mission, vision, and values of the organization.

However, articulating and communicating a mission, vision, and values is very different than training people to create and articulate for themselves, and that’s where our questions come in. When the leader articulates a future, it provides an opportunity for a follower to look up from their work and see the connection between an intention and the work they’re doing now. When a leader asks a follower to stand beside me (the leader) and tell me what I see, it provides an opportunity for the follower to begin creating a future for themselves. It causes them to look up, look out, and begin doing the work of thinking about the future of the business. It’s the difference between giving someone a fish versus teaching them.

Of course, there will be other things to do along the way and other questions to ask. “What could get in the way of that intention?” “What are some other actions we could take?” “That will solve our problem one month out. What about six months out?”

As you do this with various members of your team you’ll find that it covers the two broadest elements of leadership development as a natural outcome of doing the work of business.

  1. It helps you identify your high-potentials. You’ll discover that some people on your team appreciate this exercise and are eager to do the thinking and others aren’t. The ones who are eager are the pool from which you’ll find your next round of leaders and managers.
  2. People will develop. As you focus more on working with those who are interested in growing, you’ll find the people whose intentions align with business strategy and get better at organizing teams to take action to move the intention forward.

Of course, there will be books to read along the way, trainings to attend, and development opportunities to create. People might need to learn to facilitate meetings, have difficult conversations, and address a room full of people, to name a few.

The point is that you don’t actually need a complicated program to identify and deliver on these needs. Leadership development can be a natural part of doing the business of business where these various needs can be filled as they arise. By incorporating this simple, Socratic approach to development, you’ll create conditions where it’s easy to identify who your next leaders will be, they start growing into those roles, and more targeted needs and how to fill them become obvious.

Now, go test my theory. Three questions. It shouldn’t be hard.