I love the term "bench strength." So inspiring. In sports lingo, to have strong bench strength means that even the players on your team who aren't on the starting lineup are still forces to be reckoned with. I was never really athletic, nor on a lot of sports teams, but even I know that "being benched" definitely isn't the same thing: It means you aren't that good.
Perhaps you are just not ready for prime time yet. Maybe, no matter how hard you throw that baseball, it only goes seven feet. Or perhaps, it could be you refuse to slide into second base because you'd rather die than skin your legs. Rocks hurt. Or maybe you're working on that key skill or building up to a level of endurance that would allow you to consistently compete and support your teammates in your shared goals.
So, you're stuck on the bench.
Unfortunately, it can be a similar situation for many high-potential employees, who can get stuck on the corporate bench as well. Frankly, it's not hard to determine who your high potentials are. Lots of us have 9-box grids and large data sets in our HRIS/HCM systems to determine who the next leader is as part of our succession planning practices, which is great. I like data. But even organizations without lots of data typically know who the shining stars are. The cream rises to the top in most cases and likely your organization is no exception.
The bigger problem occurs after the next-generation leader is identified. Efforts typically stall when it's time to put your money where your mouth is and carve out resources, time and access for high potentials to learn the leadership skills they need to move into more senior roles. This takes planning, negotiating and regular progress assessments to move the team member from the bench to the starting lineup. Sounds a lot like coaching for growth, doesn't it?
So what does this mean for you when it comes to developing leadership bench strength?
How to develop leadership bench strength
You will spend more time teaching and coaching than doing day-to-day work during this time period. In addition, your high potential will do more learning and training than day-to-day work too. Let that sink in.
Because adults are experiential learners. They learn best by doing. So, it is the leader's job to create pockets of leadership experiences outside of the learner's regular schedule for the high potential to jump in. To navigate. To learn.
This is where the negotiation piece comes in. Before you start training your high potential, you MUST schedule time for your protégé to attend leadership meetings you are a part of. Much of a leader's job is to create ideas and solve problems with data discussed in strategic meetings.
The most efficient way for your high potential to do this is by participating in the meeting. It is at this point you must actively advocate for your learner to participate in meetings, for many times you'll get automatic push-back on this notion. Your leadership peers have worked hard to get the secret password, allowing them to enter the super important strategic meetings. Why should they let your green bean in?
If this happens, push back. In my experience, not allowing meeting access is one of the biggest training failures. These meetings present relevant, real-time case studies and an opportunity for the learner to get exposure to other leaders' ideas. It also gives the learner a snapshot of the politics involved in all strategic operations. Last but not least, if you don't allow access, it indicates you and your peers don't trust the high potential. That's a huge momentum killer.
Get in the game: Pull your HiPos off the bench
So, put your money where your mouth is. Do the quickest and easiest thing to develop your bench strength: pull your high potentials off the bench. Giving your high potentials exposure to the big show builds trust, provides real-life scenarios to study and provides the momentum your learner needs to have breakthroughs. Engaging your high-potential employees throughout this process is also what helps to create and maintain a culture of high-performance.
And you never know, your high potential just might be the one to provide your leadership team a new idea that sparks a business breakthrough. Now that's hitting a home run!