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Leadership Development: What do you do with the rest of your leaders?
by Wally Bock

If you read the articles about "wars for talent" and "succession crises" and the ones with titles like "where will tomorrow's leaders come from?" you could get the idea that the only leaders that really matter are the ones labeled "high potential."

High potential leaders, the ones headed for the C-suite, are important. But they aren't the only leaders in your shop. And if you build your leadership development program only around their needs you risk running your ship of commerce aground on the rocks of failure.

There are five groups of leaders in your company who should get your attention. The high potential leaders are only one of those groups.

I call the high potential leaders "Strivers." Their career is structured around increasing responsibility as they make their way to the top of the organizational chart.

Strivers require close attention to their development. They need lots of development assignments, both permanent and temporary, and they need lots of feedback and support. In addition to being the group headed for the C-suite, they also seem to be the group most likely to leave for a better opportunity.

Sustainers are the leaders all over your organization who make sure the day to day work gets done. Some of them started out as Strivers, but decided that they didn't want that sort of career for one reason or another.

Many Sustainers are people in love with their specialty, whether marketing or IT or HR or plant management. They are also often influential and insightful mentors for other leaders, including many Strivers.

Sustainers need feedback and support for their leadership work. They often need development opportunities in their technical fields. Maybe most important in today's world, they need to know how important they are to your company and its results. They need to know that it's not just the Strivers who count.

Along the career path some leaders want to take time off. I call them Sabbaticals and I think we'll see more of them in the future.

Some Sabbaticals take time off for family reasons, like Brenda Barnes. But we need to find ways for talented leaders, Strivers or Sustainers, to take time off for personal development without having to start over when they return to the workplace.

There are models to explore in the classical academic sabbatical year. But the military also offers us examples of rising leaders assigned, as their job, to return to school for a degree or for special learning or to undertake a special development project.

The truly forgotten leaders in most companies are the ones I call Sergeants. Sergeants are the first line leaders, often without degrees, who supervise front line workers in call centers, on shop floors and out in the field. Many supervise craft workers from whose ranks they were promoted.

Sergeants need training in the skills they need for the supervisory parts of their jobs. They know the technical stuff, but they rarely get supervisory skills training and are often put in the uncomfortable and failure-prone position of supervising the people they've worked with for years while they're also transitioning to a new role. Sergeants also need what all leaders need: support and feedback.

If you're counting you'll notice that I promised you five groups and so far there are only four. The fifth group are what I call "Sneakers."

I call them Sneakers because you can't polish them. There are a variety of reasons that they can't or won't perform. Some are in positions where they're responsible for a group and are very bad at that work, even though they could be excellent individual contributors.

Some Sneakers are leaders in the wrong place. Re-assignment might save their skills and experience for your company. But some Sneakers can't or won't make the grade anywhere. The reason doesn't matter as much as the fact that you need to let them go so both you and they can do better.

Sneakers need attention and help to determine the right choice for them and you. And they need your honesty and your discipline if they need to be let go.

Strivers, the high potentials, the future C-suite executives, are important to the future of your company. But so are the Sustainers, Sabbaticals, Sergeants, and even the Sneakers. Strivers get the press and the praise, but it's the Sustainers and Sergeants the do the day to day work of the place. It's the Sabbaticals who may come back with breakthrough ideas or renewed vigor. And the Sneakers need help figuring out where they fit.

The future of leadership development will need to pay attention to all these groups. And it needs to start today.

Wally Bock may be contacted at

Wally Bock helps organizations improve productivity and morale by selecting and developing great leaders at all levels. He coaches individual managers, and is a popular speaker at meetings and conferences in the US and elsewhere. This article first appeared in the Three Star Leadership Blog ( ). Check out Wally's Working Supervisor's Support Kit ( ).



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