• May 09 2024

Developing Leaders at the Top of the Talent Pyramid

Understanding the steep learning curve for executive successors

By the time a leader is tapped for succession, they will have gained significant knowledge and experience to prepare them for the top role. Yet, more than 2 out 3 CEOs report feeling unprepared to lead in that position when they first assumed the role. Worse still, more than half of executives fail within the first 18 months on the job.

A company’s top executives have the biggest impact on business performance and culture, and it is imperative that they have the capabilities they need to succeed. So why are so many successors underprepared, and what can HR and talent teams do to ensure these top leaders get the development they need to be successful? 

Understanding the novel challenges of executive leadership

Stepping into an executive position represents a significant leap in responsibility and complexity for leaders, marked by a steep learning curve that is distinct from previous periods of professional growth. 

During earlier stages of their careers, leaders typically undergo a process of gradual skill acquisition and development, taking on increasingly challenging assignments and roles, honing their skills, building their expertise, and expanding their leadership capabilities over time. This gradual progression–under the mentorship and guidance of supervising leaders– allows them to develop a solid foundation of knowledge, skills, and experience that prepares them for higher-level leadership roles.

However, when leaders transition into executive positions, they confront novel challenges that put all of their skills to the test, and require them to develop new ones. The distinct challenges met by senior-level executives are characterized by: 

Expanded scope and complexity: Leaders must have a broad understanding of an organization’s operations, strategy, finances, and market dynamics beyond their functional expertise to navigate complex challenges.

Strategic leadership: Executives are responsible for setting the direction of the organization, requiring them to think strategically, anticipate future trends, and analyze complex scenarios with far-reaching implications. Leaders stepping into these roles must learn to balance short-term priorities with long-term goals and effectively allocate resources to drive sustainable growth.

Stakeholder management and influence: Executives must engage with a diverse array of stakeholders, including board members, investors, customers, employees, and regulatory authorities. Building and maintaining effective relationships with stakeholders, influencing decision-making processes, and garnering support for organizational initiatives are critical aspects of executive leadership.

Risk management and decision-making amid uncertainty: Executives are tasked with managing risks and making high-stakes decisions in an uncertain environment. They must weigh competing priorities, evaluate potential outcomes, and navigate complex trade-offs while mitigating risks and maximizing opportunities for the organization.

Cultural transformation and change leadership: Over time, the attitudes and expectations of employees evolve; so too must organizational culture. Executives often spearhead cultural transformation initiatives and lead organizational change efforts. To do so requires the ability to articulate a compelling vision, rally support from stakeholders, and drive initiatives that align with the organization’s values and strategic objectives.

    Accelerating successor readiness with integrated leadership development

    When leaders take on new challenges, the stakes are high, and the pressure to make the right decisions is enormous. As leaders hit this steep learning curve, it is critical to support them with comprehensive development programs that rapidly build their capabilities and confidence to lead. 

    Leadership development programs for successors should include multiple components that work in concert to accelerate leaders’ readiness to step into critical roles. 

    Leadership coaching

    Coaching should play a central role in the development of every potential successor. The transition to senior leadership requires not only the acquisition and strengthening of skills and competencies but a significant shift in mindset. 

    Coaches serve as trusted advisors to potential successors, offering objective feedback, advice, and a confidential sounding board as leaders navigate new and often daunting challenges. Coaches also support successors in setting goals and staying accountable for developing the capabilities needed to drive the organization forward. 

    Immersive, credentialed leadership courses

    High-level leaders value and benefit from in-depth, credentialed learning from reputable institutions. Enrolling successors in certificate programs from top business schools returns value by providing comprehensive learning on critical business and leadership topics, and boosting successors’ confidence and leadership profiles. 

    Immersive courses can be a significant investment of leaders’ time and your budget. It’s important to carefully research courses to assess their relevance to leaders’ target capabilities. 

    It’s also important to provide successors with options so they can choose the course(s) that most closely matches their interests, preferences, and schedule. Select 2-3 courses that target the desired capabilities and encourage successors to work with their coaches to decide which will be the best fit. 

    Pragmatic application of new skills

    Stretch assignments are a critical component of successor development, offering relatively low stakes opportunities for leaders to apply newly learned concepts and skills to a real-world challenge at their organization. 

    Practical learning provides a supportive framework that saves leaders time and effort learning critical knowledge and skills that they would otherwise acquire through trial and error on the job. This allows them to focus on applying their knowledge and skills to real challenges and accelerates their success. 

    Coaches should play a central role in honing a successor’s approach to problem-solving and decision making, offering objective feedback and guidance on leaders’ approach to and execution of complex initiatives. 

    On-demand learning

    The market doesn’t pause to wait for leaders to develop new skills. As changes accelerate in the business environment, successors need the ability to rapidly learn new leadership concepts to stay ahead of the curve. 

    In addition to longer, more immersive courses, your successor development plan should include short, self-paced learning opportunities that leaders can take advantage of at any time. Offering a library of on-demand courses also provides leaders with more agency over their professional development which helps keep them engaged in learning. 

    Networking experiences

    A leader’s professional network is one of their greatest assets when it comes to driving business results. Demands of daily work and personal obligations often prohibit leaders from making meaningful connections with peer professionals though, both within and outside your organization. 

    Support leaders to make valuable connections in their industry or field by sponsoring and/or facilitating networking opportunities. To foster connections within your organization, consider convening nationally or globally distributed leaders at a corporate retreat. To encourage industry networking outside of your organization, invest in leaders attending at least 1-2 professional conferences per year.

    Pull it all together to accelerate impact

    To accelerate and maximize learning outcomes, the various components of your successor development plan should work together, reinforcing and complementing each other. ExecOnline research shows that when participants pair leadership coaching with learning experiences, they are 2x as likely to be recognized for improved job performance than those who participate in learning alone. 

    ExecOnline empowers HR and learning leaders to design and deploy multimodal learning and coaching to successors all on one platform. This integrated approach to delivering immersive, on-demand, and project-based learning in concert with premium leadership coaching ensures that successors stay on track developing critical capabilities, while allowing them flexibility and agency over their own leadership development journey. 

    Want to learn more about how ExecOnline can prepare your organization’s potential successors to thrive at the highest levels of leadership?

    Successors Solutions

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