Be a Steppingstone

Managers who show employees the path to the top—and help them get there—advance their own careers.

By Helene Lollis Nov 1, 2008

The path to leadership in any organization is defined by the senior management team. It is based on a set of characteristics, skills and experiences proven to lead to success in the organization. While the ambition and drive to follow that path belongs to each individual, the guidance and support needed to successfully navigate the way comes from managers. As a manager, you travel on this path in your own career, and by taking key steps, you create structure for those high-potential employees who come behind you. By empowering others to follow your footsteps, you not only prepare them for success but also position yourself as a leader on a path toward greater responsibility.

Working within the context of the organization's long-term growth strategy, HR leaders and senior managers identify the skills, competencies and experiences future leaders need to have. These collective attributes allow the organization to be successful in the future. High-performing people who seek the opportunity to lead want to understand what it takes to become a leader, and they want development plans to support their growth.

As a manager, it is your responsibility to incorporate this organizational definition of success into your feedback, evaluations and development plans. Your team looks to you to translate the required skill development and experiences into actionable plans that position them for personal growth and the necessary exposure to be considered for key assignments.

These action plans and tactical decisions guide your team members as they cross the rough terrain and challenging obstacles that make up the path to leadership. This is a significant responsibility—developing the talent around you while simultaneously positioning yourself for success and growth.

A Tale of Two Managers

Are you traveling along the path and then covering your tracks so no one can follow you? Or are you taking steps to guide your team members and encouraging them to lengthen their strides to reach key milestones?

Consider the tale of two managers. Brad manages a group of marketing specialists. He says people are most motivated by being part of a winning team, and he is a talented marketer. Members of Brad's team say he retains many of the most challenging and rewarding assignments for himself, and they wish they had the opportunity to work on these high-profile assignments. Brad says he is protecting his employees by allowing them to focus on projects that they can successfully complete. In reality, Brad is holding back his team members and himself; just as they are not able to demonstrate their skills on high-profile assignments, Brad is not demonstrating the ability to manage and guide a team.

Deidre also manages marketing specialists. She says her team is motivated by opportunities to take on stretch assignments and knows she will guide them if they encounter a significant challenge. She rarely leads a project, but rather focuses on distributing the work, aligning team members with work that allows them to accomplish objectives while developing skills. Deidre takes time to communicate with senior leaders about the key accomplishments of her group and key personal developments. Her style motivates her team and positions her for success as a leader. She recognizes that the ability to develop others remains central in any organization's leadership profile.

Both Brad and Deidre face the same challenge: leading the work and development of others while simultaneously positioning themselves for success. Not every organization is able to provide a clear outline to help managers position their people for success. But, all managers bear the responsibility of considering how to best equip their staff members for moving forward and then aligning their assignments and development opportunities to help them grow as the organization succeeds.

A Vision of Success

No other person in an organization will ever be as vested in an individual's career as that individual, yet as a manager, you can provide information and opportunity, effectively translating the vision of success into actionable development plans.

It is essential that managers fully understand how senior leaders define success and what combinations of skill, competency and experience are viewed as prerequisites for leadership positions. In some organizations, this information is widely available. In others, it may be necessary to explore the terrain with senior leaders and others to develop a profile.

Once you fully understand the organization's vision of leadership, clearly communicate this information to your team members and help them understand what is expected of senior leaders and what is valued by the organization. Communicating to your staff what success looks like empowers them in career planning.

Encourage their communication with others in the organization. Create an environment where informational interviews are seen as positive steps in career planning. Connect your staff to others in your internal network who could help them understand career options.

This enterprisewide view helps employees see broader approaches to their career plans and how different behaviors and skills are needed across functional areas. This will also help employees build networks and gain exposure throughout the organization.

You, as manager, create an environment for your team's career planning. By sharing information and encouraging employees to explore options and take charge of their careers, you will help your team grow and engender loyalty and trust.

Facilitate Feedback

As a manager, frank and constructive feedback constitutes the most valuable gift that you can give your staff. You set the stage by:

  • Providing timely, specific and actionable feedback.
  • Confirming that the team member understands the feedback and what steps can be taken to improve in certain areas.
  • Aligning the team member's work with opportunities for development.

Developing the leadership potential of your staff requires that you provide feedback on their performance in their current roles and performance relative to the key elements of the organization's leadership profile. In some organizations, this sort of evaluation is incorporated into the performance management system, but in others this can be a stand-alone process. Even if no formal evaluative process exists, your high-potential team members will appreciate the information.

The ability to give feedback effectively is a critical skill for leaders, and the most effective managers help their staff develop this skill by asking for feedback on their own performance and by encouraging their staff to evaluate them relative to key leadership metrics, supported with specific examples.

Development Plans

Translate key competencies and prerequisite assignments that senior leaders value into actionable development plans. Development plans should include on-the-job experiential learning as well as formal learning interventions, all effectively aligned with the individual's performance objectives.

Certainly, formal course work and training remain elements of development plans. Programs offered internally and externally can address developmental areas.

But too often, managers rely exclusively on formal training to fulfill a development plan, neglecting the myriad opportunities offered in the work environment such as cross-training, special projects and increased responsibilities. In the organization at large, rotational assignments, cross-functional teams, multidisciplinary projects, affinity groups and even philanthropic initiatives all function as opportunities. A project as simple as working on the company picnic can be a true learning experience with great exposure.

Opportunities for mentoring and peer networking also contribute to a development plan. Trade and industry associations, as well as professional organizations and consultants, often offer such programs.


High-potential employees thrive on having a line of sight into how their work contributes to the organization's broader objectives. Review as a team your business unit's strategy and discuss the key deliverables that your team has responsibility for and how they support the overall mission. This exercise motivates your staff and supports their development by exposing them to broader issues.

Ensure that the work of the team indeed aligns with those objectives and that your staff is recognized for the support they provide. Engage openly in dialogue with managers to ensure that your team is able to remain focused on mission-critical work and does not get lost in pet projects that are not valued. Your ability to demonstrate your team's support of key initiatives will create additional opportunities for leading-edge work.

To boost your own career, highlight the alignment of your team's work and key objectives when giving presentations and communicating with senior leaders. Discuss team accomplishments and key individual developments. Encourage your staff to always position their accomplishments and their growth relative to organizational goals and the leadership profile.

What's in It for You?

Every manager is responsible for developing talent, and the manager can only be as successful as the team. Taking an active and genuine interest in the development of others is not simply a nice thing to do; your own progress depends on it.

In helping others grow as leaders, you demonstrate your ability to lead and to broadly impact the organization. Taking each of the steps presented here positions you for success:

  • Communicating the leadership profile demonstrates that you understand this critical information and that you are able to relate it to individuals at different levels.
  • Encouraging your team to connect with others in the organization highlights your network and your ability to reach across functions and groups.
  • Providing effective feedback positions you to lead others.
  • Teaching others to provide effective feedback demonstrates your ability to influence.
  • Creating meaningful development plans shows your ability to manage talent and grow the capabilities of the organization.
  • Aligning your team with organizational objectives demonstrates your ability to see the big picture and to align action with results.

In short, developing your team demonstrates your readiness to move on to new responsibilities: You've built the competencies that secure the future of your workgroup.

The author is president of Pathbuilders Inc., an Atlanta-based organization focused on helping companies shape the future with high-performing women,

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