Contributed Column

The Manager’s Corner

by Emily Morrow

Optimal cultivation: home-grown, in-house leadership

Over the last year, I’ve had the privilege of speaking confidentially with HR managers at some of the highest performing companies in Vermont and New Zealand about the following: “What is your company doing, on a home-grown, in-house basis, to attract, identify, cultivate, and retain employees with strong leadership potential?”

Here are the high points of what I’ve learned, with a focus on best practices and specific suggestions that might be of greatest practical use in your workplace.

Formal training based on position. In this approach, all managers over a certain level are invited on a regular basis to formal training sessions, typically led by outside trainers, and are sometimes given “credit” for attending. Programs typically focus on “soft skills” such as EQ (emotional intelligence quotient), teamwork, and motivation.

I think of this approach as more traditional, and although it’s in-house, it is not truly home-grown. It provides consistency in what managers are learning, and employees are introduced to recognized best practices, albeit in a way that does not necessarily identify or cultivate individual high potentials. A variation on this theme is to provide formal training to all employees but focus on technical skills (e.g., sales techniques or enhanced use of the IT system) for junior employees, and people skills for existing and future managers.

Senior professionals mentoring junior professionals. In professional service groups such as accounting and law firms, the focus increasingly is on pairing senior and junior professionals in a mentoring relationship. In some cases the mentors are self-selected and choose with whom they’d like to work. In other firms, a more deliberate selection process identifies partners who are likely to be most effective in a mentoring relationship, based on such skills as communication, ability to model best practices, and experience with business development. Interestingly, in none of the firms I spoke with is there any formal training for the mentors, benchmarking of success, or articulated feedback processes, all of which would likely enhance the effectiveness of such work.

The “organic” approach: bubble-to-the-surface and cultivation of self-selected high potentials. The notion here is that natural leaders will rise to the top and that one does not consciously cultivate them but does give them progressively greater challenges and responsibilities. In one case, a company invited employees to test its products, noticed which employees took the greatest initiative, and offered these employees the chance to work together going forward. The idea is to provide opportunities for self-selection, improve processes, and encourage those with natural skills to lead others. It relies initially on informal benchmarking and thereafter on more formal benchmarks.

This is both in-house and home-grown leadership development and has the advantage of immediately embedding leadership development in a company. Typically such programs can benefit from including some outside formal training to ensure a diversity of approach.

Human capital pipeline review, opportunity matching, and formal feedback. In this well-organized approach, senior management reviews all employees on a regular basis, with an eye to matching raw talent with new opportunities, and seeks to implement appropriate changes. Managers are often encouraged to have 360-degree reviews, identify issues to focus on, and create action plans to do so. They are held accountable for their own success in achieving professional development goals. These approaches seem to work well at the senior managerial level but can run into some resistance among less-senior employees.

In my opinion, no one approach is better than another; these are just a few of many innovative approaches being used. The trick — and the challenge — is to determine which techniques will best serve your company and pursue them relentlessly, while constantly making nimble and appropriate mid-course corrections. What really matters is to hire the right employees, nurture and educate them, articulate an appropriate values-based culture, and consistently “walk the talk” from the top to the bottom.

The outcomes will be optimal cultivation with resulting profitability, regardless of whether one is in Vermont, New Zealand, or elsewhere in the world. Some things do, indeed, transcend cultural boundaries. •

Emily Morrow of Shelburne provides tailored consulting services to business owners, executives, and HR professionals in a wide variety of industry sectors including retail, financial services, Web-based businesses, manufacturing, professional service firms, and nonprofit organizations. She can be reached at or

The Manager’s Corner

by Emily Morrow

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