Busy professionals don’t always get the opportunity to rise above the demands of their day to day work to plan their careers of develop new skills properly. When the pressure is on to deliver short term targets, cost savings and efficiency improvements, longer term development activities can easily be put on the “back burner”. Indeed, research conducted by the CIPD in 2008 identified that only two out of five business leaders are satisfied with the leadership development offered by their employers.

So how can leadership skills be developed in a proactive way that balances business and individual needs? To achieve this it requires a radical rethink of how leaders are developed. It isn’t sufficient to send talented managers on leadership seminars and courses. After all, leadership is not just about being “born a leader” or being “made into a leader”. It is also about choice – choosing to be a leader, and choosing how you behave and respond to situations and circumstances. Leadership development therefore needs to be fashioned to meet an individual’s needs; it needs to challenge and get the individual thinking about their potential, aspirations and where they want their career to go.

This style of development can take a number of forms :

1. Project Work

Important business improvement projects are an excellent way of developing and testing leadership skills. Projects might include :

  • Developing a new product or service
  • Making improvements with a key supplier
  • Reducing energy consumption
  • Raising awareness of CSR

2. Secondments too can broaden experiences, and develop relationships and business acumen. Secondments can range from taking a role in a different department to setting up a new business or setting up a new office in a different country.

However, it is important that individuals are not simply left to “sink or swim” with their project or secondment. Individuals should be given the opportunity to have an external coach or mentor that can guide them and make the most of their experiences.

There is a risk that such free thinking might lead talented individuals to believe their careers lie outside of their organisation. However, such a process of development enables an organisation to proactively manage the aspirations and expectations of their high flyers, planning for succession as appropriate. Too often organisations do not understand what their high flyers want until the exit interview.