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Creating future leaders

What do companies look for when they are identifying people with the potential and how do they develop them?

We set out to answer these questions, finding out  how businesses identify and develop the people who will become their future leaders, and what potential leaders could do to improve their career prospects.

A key finding is that businesses regard training as essential to developing inspirational, effective leaders – and centres may find the report particularly useful in promoting ILM qualifications to employers.

What we found 

Leadership traits

First and foremost, the senior HR professionals we approached emphasised a distinct set of personal characteristics that future leaders need to possess. These were principally in the relationship and inter-personal domain – they sought visionary, motivational and inspirational people who are emotionally intelligent, trustworthy, natural leaders and communicators, and who are also driven and ambitious.

Skills and knowledge

Future leaders also need a range of skills and knowledge to support their personal characteristics. These fall into three main strands. The first, cited by over half of respondents, is appropriate technical and professional skills in relevant areas like law, accounting or engineering.

The second strand comprises commercial and financial skills (54%), so that future leaders understand how business works and can demonstrate high levels of business acumen. The third strand largely supports the personal characteristics the respondents identified, and includes skills in people management and development, communication, coaching and feedback, and team management skills.

Experience matters

The right mix of personal characteristics supported by the appropriate skills and knowledge are necessary but not sufficient –  young managers keen to advance their careers to the top of business also need to ensure that they have a broad range of experience. This experience should encompass different roles and, where appropriate, different industries.

What’s more, future leaders need to show that they can cope with pressure and failure with nearly a quarter of respondents stressing the importance of being able to deal with difficulties and challenges. A path of unbroken success suggests that they haven’t really been tested.

Education and training

Although it is expected that future leaders will have a good standard of education (a first degree is generally taken as a given, but the right personal qualities trump any gaps in the educational record), most businesses see it as their responsibility to develop leadership and management abilities. Primarily this development is through in-house, modular programmes that are closely tied to the business’s own operations, culture and goals, using their own developers or external training providers who know them and understand their industry.

The effectiveness of business schools is a matter of debate

When asked about the role of business schools and MBAs in developing future leaders, the respondents are equivocal. Half of respondents were neutral about the effectiveness of business schools, while just over a third viewed them negatively. While they recognise that business schools had some strengths, their major weakness was that they do not have that deep understanding of the business and its particular characteristics that they looked for in training providers.

When it comes to MBAs, they acknowledge that they demonstrate that the holder has acquired appropriate knowledge but were critical of the disconnect between what is learnt in business schools and the workplace. An MBA is not seen as a necessary requirement for advancement, although it could give an advantage when competing for a post when all the other requirements, especially the personal characteristics and experience, were equal.

Links and resources

Resources for centres

Effective training is the key to developing inspirational, effective leaders – and the findings of this report can be used to help centres promote their ILM qualifications to employers.