A faithful reader asked me how to prepare employees for succession. This is a major issue in all kinds of organizations, but it’s particularly relevant for those with declared intentions to promote from within.

Promoting from within gives you the advantage of drawing from people who know the current processes and procedures and are familiar with the cultural norms. But this “insiderness” can also mean that candidates are unaware of other options and approaches or that they’ve become complacent — believing that the way they’ve always done things is good enough rather than thinking about what could be better.

Succession Isn’t a Monolith

I suggested breaking the idea of succession into two different aspects: company potential and individual development. Determining potential can be challenging if the current leadership feels confronted by their own lacks or weaknesses. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to see whether the leadership team is accomplishing everything it can, and how much further the company can move forward.

For example, how could the company grow more consistently? How could it engage employees more consistently and become a local employer of choice? Could it improve profitability? How about becoming a better corporate citizen? Are there new activities that would be valuable to add to the portfolio, like extending the product line or bringing important or vulnerable outsourced activities in-house? These are the questions that both current leaders and emerging leaders need to consider as well as whether the capabilities of emerging leaders will satisfy those needs.

Three Crucial Aspects of Development

This is where development comes in. Start by assessing what knowledge, skills, and practices are needed to generate these newly targeted results, and then determine whether the junior leaders have the potential to learn them. One effective tool is the collection and compilation of feedback from various stakeholders — or, even better, inviting stakeholders to share their feedback in a facilitated setting.

It’s helpful to break leaders’ development needs into three categories, starting with general business awareness: understanding local, national, and global trends and gaining financial acumen. Growth and development in this category can come from mentors both inside and outside the company and educational programs.

The next category, technical skills, could include acquiring and integrating new enterprise-level software, beginning a new manufacturing line, or improving customer experience. You may need to find coursework or mentors outside the company or bring in relevant experts to teach concepts and shepherd up-and-coming individuals through the use of new skills. Local colleges and universities often have pertinent programs, and trade associations or local business groups frequently include experienced members who are willing to share their knowledge and expertise.

A third category of development is behavioral, which includes improving skills in listening, giving feedback, conceptualizing, and implementing change management. Strengthening emotional intelligence also falls into this category, in terms of both self-awareness and self-regulation. Numerous books and programs can supply pertinent material in this area, or you could bring in an expert coach to help teach and develop these skills.

The Power of Experience

Whenever possible, take advantage of experiential learning by assigning up-and-coming leaders to manage new initiatives or tricky situations — including anything from opening a branch office to running an R&D project or upskilling a segment of the workforce.

In addition to identifying the necessary kinds of learning, it’s valuable for leaders to confer with other leaders and get the benefit of their experience. This could mean having junior leaders join local business or professional organizations and networking with peers and elders, or bringing in experienced coaches with alternative perspectives who can act as sounding boards for your juniors.

By combining an assessment of the organization’s potential with these various aspects of development, you can help emerging leaders experiment and learn by trial and error within a relatively safe context. You’ll also be able to assess their readiness to live with a higher order of responsibility and contribute to the company in ever-expanding ways.