In my career I have worked with a number of companies to determine what skills & experience their future leaders will need, and the common aim is to create leaders who understand the whole system in which they operate, challenge established thinking, drive innovation and bring fresh and diverse thinking to develop and grow businesses.
But many career paths don’t give the breadth of experience needed to develop these skills. Careers often develop vertically in the organisation, with a high value placed on someone’s specialism. People move upwards through the organisation leading larger teams, working with longer time frames and dealing with more complex problems.
Of course leaders need a depth of knowledge, be that a particular business sector, skill or knowledge. This specialism is the unique contribution someone brings to the team, and is critical to delivering the strategy. After all, we would all like to think the person directing our work knows something about what it involves.
But my suggestion is being highly skilled in your specialism isn’t enough to be successful as a future leader.
Careers need breadth as well as depth.
Experiencing a variety of roles is probably the most obvious way to get breath. Role like business partnering or area managers develop a broad range of skills and experience across a range of disciplines within one field e.g. operations, HR and Finance. These not only give a breadth of knowledge but often expose the individual to business problems experienced by others. They hone skills in collaborations, people management, team working, as well as greater exposure to the whole company system, whilst still leveraging their specialist knowledge.
Also consider the value and encourage experience beyond the boundaries of the company or sector. This can be voluntary work, industry forums or non exec roles. They broaden individuals’ understanding of competitors, different sectors. It will potentially enable leaders to challenge the established thinking, drive innovation and view issues from multiple angles.
Understanding and experiencing the contrasting challenges and priorities of the different business units support leaders to think beyond their function, business unit and division to generate integrated solutions.
So if you want to develop great future leaders, think about career management as a climbing frame, not a ladder. Help employees navigate sideways and diagonally across an organisation, mapping the types of experiences leaders may wish to have. It will help them appreciate and understand all the challenges and opportunities for your business.