May 2022

What is a Leadership Pipeline?

by Jay Pullins

The last couple of years have brought old, ignored business problems into vivid display. We're seeing more clearly than ever that the demand for effective business leaders is greatly exceeding the supply.

The competition for employees is fierce, and none more so than the competition for effective leaders. Internal leader development programs, where they exist at all, have been inadequate, making it necessary for organizations to look outside for leaders.

While hiring leaders from outside is sometimes helpful, it is a poor strategy. It's difficult to hire skilled leaders who have the organization's "DNA" and have bought into the organization's purpose and values. So senior leader turnover is high, further impeding the effectiveness of organizational goals. Many leaders today were never trained in the skills and values necessary for their management role. As a result, frustration and distrust run high, and productivity runs low.

Organizations that are beating these odds are the ones who have an internal leadership pipeline, which is a thorough program for training their employees in the skills needed at each level of leadership in the company. Many senior business leaders have discovered that training their leaders and setting them up for success makes good business sense. While ROI on "soft" leadership skills is harder to measure, analysts in this area tell us that the return on the investment averages about five dollars for every dollar spent.

While budgeting for staff leadership development opportunities is a good start (at least better than nothing), there's a qualitative difference between letting supervisors pick a conference or course to attend and installing an integrated leadership pipeline in the organization.

Imagine that you've decided it's time for a new family car. You would spend some time thinking about the purpose of having one and the goals the new car would help your family meet, primarily getting the whole family safely and comfortably from point A to point B. As a family, you might discuss the features that are necessary for your new vehicle. Should you go with the minivan? The SUV? How about a bus or camper?

It's hard finding the vehicle that everyone in the family can agree on. So, here's an idea. Let's just give everyone in the family a gift card to the local auto parts store and let them pick out what they want. That should make everyone happy.

They've gone to the store and have come home with what each thought was the essentials for their family car. You have in your driveway a set of tires, a five-gallon gas can, a box of spark plugs, a case of oil, a couple of Mickey Mouse air fresheners, and a Millennium Falcon window shade. Now you see the problem. While everyone seems to be happy with their purchases, you're no closer to having a family car than before your shopping spree.

Similarly, while à la carte leadership training — letting individuals decide what training they want — might get strong buy-in and result in less argument, you still don't have a strategy or structure for building leaders at all levels of the organization who are ready to take on the next level of leadership responsibility.

In contrast, a leadership pipeline that's integrated top to bottom is like a car that carries the family along in the intended direction. It provides architecture for setting performance standards for each management level. It identifies the job skills and results leaders should be trained and held accountable for. It provides structure for building the leadership bench strength you need, and it serves as a tool for succession planning at every level.

Acquiring the right leadership pipeline for an organization is like finding the right family car. It will require commitment, and probably some help from an expert. If you're ready to reap the benefits of a consistent, integrated program that will provide you with qualified leaders year after year, Academy Leadership is ready to help you build your dream team.