• May 13 2024

Bench Strength Basics: How to Measure and Build a Future-Ready Workforce

Bench strength refers to the depth and level of leadership readiness among talent at an organization. Having a strong talent bench means having a high number of internal candidates who are prepared to step into critical leadership roles at any time. 

While the term bench strength is most commonly associated with succession planning for an organization’s most senior executives, HR and talent leaders should strive to strengthen the talent bench at every level. 

Why is bench strength worth building? Developing potential leaders at every level of the organization helps ward off the costly impacts of turnover and ensures a critical mass of employees have the future-ready skill sets required to continuously drive business performance. 

Read on to learn how to assess  and improve your organization’s bench strength at every level of the leadership. 

How to measure bench strength

Every organization defines leadership readiness differently and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to measuring bench strength. However, several indicators can help you define and measure bench strength at your organization. 

Succession planning metrics

Succession planning involves identifying potential successors for critical leadership roles and assessing their readiness to assume those roles. Metrics related to succession planning include:

Leader assessments: Qualitative and quantitative assessments give a comprehensive picture of a potential successor’s capabilities, experience, job performance, and potential to lead. The more capable leaders, the stronger your bench.

High-potential identification: Identification and retention of employees who demonstrate high potential for future leadership roles based on their performance, capabilities, and leadership qualities. The greater number of employees identified and nurtured as high-potential leaders, the stronger your bench.

Succession pipeline (or succession ratio) analysis: Tracking the number of potential successors with the necessary capabilities who are ready to fill each critical leadership role. A high succession ratio = a strong bench. 

Internal hire rates: Measuring the percentage of internal candidates selected to fill critical leadership roles versus external hires over time. If your organization promotes from within for critical leadership roles more often than it hires external candidates, it is a positive indicator of bench strength.

Leadership development metrics

Leadership development initiatives are foundational to bench strength, building the capabilities of leaders at all levels of the organization to drive business performance and culture. Metrics related to leadership development may include:

Program enrollment and participation rates: Tracking the percentage of leaders who participate in leadership development programs, coaching, applied learning projects, and other activities. The more leaders who participate in effective leadership development programs, the stronger the talent bench. 

Capability assessments: Assessing the proficiency of leaders in key capabilities aligned to business goals before and after participating in leadership development initiatives. Proving that leaders gain needed capabilities as a result of development demonstrate an increase in their readiness to step into higher-level roles. 

Employee engagement: Monitoring leaders’ engagement in and satisfaction with leadership development opportunities at your organization. When leaders are engaged with development opportunities, they are less likely to leave your organization. 

Employee turnover and retention metrics

Turnover and retention rates among your talent pool indicate your organization’s ability to attract, retain, and develop top talent. Metrics related to retention that can provide insight into your bench strength include: 

Turnover rates by level and impact of leadership role: Higher-level employees tend to have more experience and capabilities than lower-level employees, therefore the impact of their departure–and the level of investment needed to replace them–is greater. High retention, among mid- to senior-level employees, and particularly among high-potential leaders, is an indicator of bench strength. 

Reasons for turnover: Understanding the reasons employees leave the organization, including lack opportunities for advancement, can provide helpful insight into how to improve bench strength. 

How to build bench strength

Building bench strength requires a holistic approach and investment in attracting, retaining, and preparing talented individuals to lead your organization. Here are some of the most effective strategies for strengthening your talent bench at every level. 

Succession planning

Although bench strength reaches down and across every level of leadership at your organization, strengthening the talent bench typically starts at the very top. Why? 

An organization’s senior most leaders have the biggest share of responsibility and impact on the company’s future. If there is turnover at the top, and too few leaders who are prepared to step in to capably lead, the company risks costly disruption that can impact operations, employee morale, and even the long-term viability of the organization. 

Furthermore, creating mobility at the very top of the talent pipeline unlocks upward mobility at lower levels of leadership and fosters a culture of growth, opportunity, and development. These dynamics are critical to engaging and retaining high-performing talent. 

Talent identification and assessment

Among your employees, there is a spectrum of capabilities, aptitudes, and career aspirations. Identifying the employees who have the greatest potential for leadership is essential, so that you can focus investment on their development. It’s important to remember that not every high-performing employee has potential for or interest in leadership at your organization. You must conduct comprehensive assessments that take into account objective criteria that determine leadership potential in the context of your organizational culture and goals. 

Developing a formal high-potential (HiPo) employee program at your organization can provide valuable recognition to top talent, and a useful framework for developing future leaders. 

Leadership development

Knowledge and experience gained on the job are not enough to prepare employees for future leadership. That’s because the capabilities leaders need to succeed in the current moment in their current role won’t be the same as the capabilities needed in the future in higher levels of leadership. Formal leadership development programs accelerate leaders’ acquisition of critical knowledge and capabilities and give organizations the power to shape leaders’ professional growth in a way that serves both the leader and the organization. 

One-and-done programs will not keep your leaders ready drive impact in a fast-moving market. To build a resilient bench, you need leadership development programs that can scale and flex to meet the demands of the moment.

Leadership development programs are most effective when they are tailored to the leadership level and/or organizational function of participants. For example, senior leaders preparing for succession will require a different approach to development than first-time managers, and mid-level marketers will likely need to develop different skill sets than mid-level operations leaders. Designing highly tailored programs that you can scale to growing talent populations is critical to building bench strength. 

Bench strength is also determined by the ability of leaders at every level to continuously learn and develop their skills to keep pace with changes in the business environment. One-and-done programs will not keep leaders ready to drive impact in a fast-moving market. To build a resilient bench, you need to design leadership development programs that can scale and flex to meet the demands of the moment. 

Coaching 

Leadership coaching is one of the highest-impact ways to accelerate leaders’ development and increase bench strength. At critical moments of leadership transition, coaches help leaders set goals, align their growth to organizational goals, and provide objective feedback and a confidential sounding board as leaders navigate new challenges. 

Coaches also provide invaluable support to leaders on stretch and project-based learning assignments. Comprehensive leadership development typically includes structured or semi-structured opportunities for leaders to apply new concepts and skills to a real-world business challenge. In this context, coaches can provide constructive feedback and help leaders build their confidence as they challenge themselves to take on tasks above and beyond the scope of their role. 

Investment in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging

All initiatives to build bench strength at your organization should be underpinned by a commitment to creating equitable advancement opportunities for all employees. This means acknowledging and warding off bias in the talent assessment process. 

It also means creating equitable leadership development opportunities. Every leader is unique when it comes to their learning needs and preferences, and the capabilities that they need to develop in order to succeed. Overly prescriptive leadership development initiatives may serve some leaders, but not all. By providing options and flexibility for leaders to choose the development experiences that resonate with them and match their learning style helps build an inclusive bench. 

Interested in learning more about how ExecOnline supports Fortune500 companies to improve their bench strength?

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