“Leadership is not about position or title. It’s not about organizational power or authority. It’s not about celebrity or wealth. It’s not about the family you’re born into. It’s not about being at the organization’s apex, as CEO, president, general or prime minister. And it’s definitely not about being some sort of hero. Leadership is about relationships, about credibility, about passion and conviction, and ultimately about what you do”. – James Kouzes & Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge, 6th Edition.
The foundational premise of this article is that leadership is everyone’s business. Enhancing leadership capacity is not only developing executive leaders but leaders at all levels. Indeed, the settings of leadership are boundless. The first set of leaders to develop are those at the neophyte level. This level features management trainees, professional apprentices in all fields, interns, students and graduates of high school and university. The article proposes five ways to deliberately enhance the development of neophyte leaders: provide opportunities, offer challenges, conduct training, engage mentoring relationships, and give feedback.
The assumption that individuals are either too young or unprepared for leadership is misleading and it delays opportunities for neophytes until later in their careers. In practice, people, can exhibit leadership ability even when they are less than ten. Students are called upon to lead and appointed to leadership positions. However, organisations need to provide opportunities to neophytes to exhibit and enhance leadership capacity.
It is a disadvantage to wait until employees reach their mid-thirties or forties to commence leadership development. Instead, leadership opportunities should be built into job roles alongside trainee development planning. Induction programs tend to be mostly functional and technical with limited content relating to leadership development. A change of format and philosophy is required to put the neophytes on an early leadership trail.
Opportunities alone are not sufficient because they can be restricted by routine. Challenges should also be installed in the development of neophyte leaders. Short term redeployments, role switches, ad-hoc projects, shadowing of other employees and relief assignments represent a selection of methods for adding challenges to the work of neophyte leaders. For the millennial generation in organizations, challenges are critical not just for leadership development but for employee engagement and retention.
One of my nieces is in her probation year at one of the global technology companies. When an opportunity emerged to lead a team after the exit of a more senior person, she boldly applied to take up the role. She was interviewed along with several other candidates and although she was not offered the position, it exemplifies the thinking frame of employees in the twenty-something age group. This group is more mobile and restless than previous generations and they invite organizational responses of designing appropriate challenges.
Deliver leadership training
Based on my professional and organizational observations, the leadership development budgets and programmes of many companies are skewed towards senior and executive levels. Functional and technical training is placed in budgets for younger employees while leadership is reserved for more senior people in the hierarchy. In reality, depending on organizational structure and industry, employees are often deployed to lead teams long before they get to middle management level.
For instance, in professional services, financial institutions and consumer products, three years of experience could find an individual leading a small team of associates or sales agents. Yet, such individuals are not normally viewed as requiring leadership training because of the skewed planning previously referred to. To enhance the overall capacity of leadership, neophytes should be prepared for leadership shortly after they get into organizations. It is not beneficial to be reactive about developing leaders and expect them to be proactive in their daily conduct.
Engage mentoring relationships
Mentoring is a valuable tool for developing neophyte leaders. It enables more experienced people pass on knowledge and ideas to younger people which can transform thinking and behaviour. Some of the organizational clients I work with have realized the value of instituting mentoring relationships as part of corporate learning. They are also obtaining tremendous positive results. Although the mentoring programmes are mostly generic, their value can be expanded with the intentional inclusion of leadership in the conversational themes. Leadership lessons picked up from mentors early in a career will generate immense positive collateral in future years. Fortunately, this method of developing neophyte leaders comes at minimal cost which is largely administrative since the mentors are also employees.
Give regular feedback
The end of a management trainee year is often approached with trepidation about retention or the possibility of exit. This can be prevented by regular feedback for the neophyte with specific elements on leadership and other aspects of personal development. Of course, giving feedback is based on the assumption that there have been opportunities and challenges with which to assess progress. Feedback and measurement of progress are important components in developing the neophyte leader.
To enhance leadership capacity at the neophyte level, organizations should provide opportunities, offer challenges, deliver training, engage mentoring relationships and give regular feedback.