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How Organizations Can More Rapidly Fill Their Leadership Pipeline

How Organizations Can More Rapidly Fill Their Leadership Pipeline

Bestselling author, speaker, and a national columnist for Forbes and Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger explains how organizations can fill their leadership pipeline quickly.

When asked about what keeps them awake at night, CEO’s reply that one of their top three concerns is their lack of a pipeline of leaders that will provide leadership into the future. My first recommendation to solve this problem is to increase the scale of what is being done.


  1. Initiate a formal leadership development effort. In 2008, the consulting firm Booz, Allen and Hamilton sponsored a research project in conjunction with the American Society of Training and Development to study leadership development around the world. The study included nearly 400 firms with an average employee count of 35,218 people. Not small businesses. They found that only 37% of these organizations had an ongoing leadership development program. Of the more mid-sized firms with revenue of $50 million to $500 million, only 11% had an executive development program underway. More organizations need to get serious about development.
  2. Practice the underlying principle behind “herd immunity.” Ranchers have learned that if you want to have a herd of cattle immunized against some disease, you must reach a high percentage of the herd.  Missing 10% jeopardizes the entire herd. I submit that poor leadership is contagious. A poor leader infects the organization by lowering the bar that defines acceptable behavior. Others follow this person’s example. We see organizations with 5,000 people with manager in their title, who provide development for 40 people each year. Not exactly practicing herd immunity.
  3. Start earlier in people’s careers. From our data base that includes 360 degree feedback information on more than 125,000 leaders, we know that the average age of a participant is 40.2 years. At the same time, we know that the average supervisor is put into that role at around 27 years of age. I asked a senior leadership development person in a prominent Silicon Valley company, “If you were doing this all over again, what would you do differently?” Her answer was immediate.   “We’d start earlier in people’s careers.”
  4. Develop leaders at all levels. It is appropriate to put special emphasis on a group of senior leaders, or those individuals deemed to have potential to move to the highest level in the firm. Most employees, however, see the organization through the lens of their immediate supervisor. They build the organization culture. They impact employee retention and commitment. It is important to invest in the development of these front-line leaders, along with those in the middle-management ranks and the most senior executives.  

My colleague Joe Folkman and I decided to substantially revise and add to our earlier book, The Extraordinary Leader, because we thought more needed to be said about issues such as what I’ve discussed on the importance of increasing the scale of leadership development. We added six chapters that talk about:

  1. the need to tailor development specifically to every organization
  2. techniques for gaining executive support
  3. elevating the behavior changing power of the learning methods used
  4. ways to build the key elements of leadership development into every other human resource system (recruitment, selection, on-boarding, performance management, compensation and promotion)
  5. ways to more effectively sustain and follow-through on leadership development

I emphasized the importance of expanding the scale of leadership development in this article, but the other five elements above need to be in place, simultaneously, in order to have a successful leadership development effort. Much like the ingredients of a fine culinary dish, all the ingredients are necessary for success. The leadership pipeline can be more effectively filled, but it requires these steps to be taken.

To read more from Jack Zenger, check out his new book The New Extraordinary Leader.

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How Organizations Can More Rapidly Fill Their Leadership Pipeline

John H. Zenger (Orem, UT) is cofounder and CEO of Zenger Folkman, a professional services firm providing consulting and leadership development programs for organizational effectiveness initiatives. He is a world-renowned expert on leadership development and organizational behavior. With more than 50 years of experience in his field, he has been named “Top Leader of the Year” by and received the Thought Leader award from ISA.