The process for creating relevant, workable career growth paths that bear fruit and create an engaged, experienced culture of next-generation leaders need not be a daunting task to owners or future key firm players.

It happens when firm owners and next-gen employees work well together, have open communication and set the expectation that growing into leadership is an evolving process that will happen gradually over time with a shared commitment toward progress.

If both leaders and next-gen stakeholders decide that leadership is the ultimate goal, here are some tips that are mutually beneficial for both firm leaders and future leaders.

Advice for Leaders

I have yet to know a firm owner who finds it practical to deliver a full, structured training program, despite having the best intentions. When it comes to creating a career growth path for your next-gen team members, most times it’s much easier and more effective to mentor or coach a team member intentionally as you go.

And if you don’t have the best training or time management skills, you probably should first call your coach to get those skills functioning to support the growth-pathing you’ll be doing. Having a strong foundation in those areas can help you more efficiently develop your next-generation leader without straining yourself or the system.

You then want to gauge your stakeholders’ growth interests. In attempting to do this, many leaders will oftentimes ask them where they see themselves in five to 10 years. And oftentimes, they won’t know or don’t have a well-thought-out response.

But just because a team member doesn’t seem to be responding to your career-path inquiries – or is flat-out saying they don’t know – it doesn’t mean they lack ambition, lack direction, don’t care or are undependable. You need to give them ideas.

Share your insights about how you see your firm’s needs evolving. Be candid about your own growth path and dreams, your own outlook for succession and the type of team members and future leaders in whose good hands you’d like to place the firm someday. Give them something to go on.

An open exchange like this gives you more concrete ideas for noticing opportunities to delegate (hello, value!) and teach on the fly as things come up.

Next, you want to explore delegating tasks that can help them advance their knowledge. Find a balance between having a defined list of things they can learn while allowing them flexibility to seize prime opportunities to demonstrate their skills as you observe the person’s aptitudes for certain things.

Related to this, you also want to set out a general timeline with learning milestones to map progress. One thing definitely not to do is get into a habit of throwing people one-off, random tasks every day to alleviate your own busyness.

That’s frustrating for a team member, and you’ll quickly burn through their trust that this gig is going anywhere soon for them. And it likely won’t. When you do that, it’s a lose-lose situation. Be sure to keep delegation purposeful and in line with the timeline you’ve set up.

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Advice for Next-Gen Team Members

First of all, next-gen-ers: don’t wait to be given more responsibility. Your firm’s owner or leader might not have it all figured out or have the greatest time management or training skills in the world.

Do them (and yourself) a service by asking for more responsibility as you feel you’re capable – and certainly if you feel you’ve earned it. You’re at least half responsible for managing your own career progress.

At a minimum, let your supervisor know what you would like to learn more about. They may not have the next job you can evolve into open immediately, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still try on new experiences, shadow others to learn how they do things and try things you might find interesting.

Don’t wait to be invited to experiment with new tasks, but do be polite and communicate your intentions while taking on these new tasks. Stay curious, offer to help and demonstrate usefulness (where it’s welcome) where you see gaps.

This leads to my next point: You don’t have to definitively know what you want to do with your life at this moment. Many firm leaders will ask you, “What do you want to be doing in five to 10 years?” 

This is a well-meaning and purposeful question for leaders’ purposes, but it can be confounding when you’re early in your career and naturally might not have enough cumulative experiences to have a firm opinion or know all the options possible or what might work (or not work) for you.

Don’t feel stressed or pressured to make up an answer about your dream job to please your boss or for fear that you’ll be let go or sound aimless if you don’t have a “plan.” If you don’t know for sure, you can effectively open the door to explore what you want to do with responses like these:

  • I’d like a better idea of what options exist here; can you give me some ideas?
  • I’m interested in doing things that involve interacting with people/having a lot of structure/figuring out problems. What roles do you think might be good for me?
  • What do you see as my strength areas?
  • If you were at my career stage again, what would you explore doing differently and why?

These are smart responses that demonstrate engagement and sincere interest in elevating your career. Most importantly, this type of dialogue between a leader and an emerging team member yields rich data for both parties, speeding things along to getting the right person into the next right seat.

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Engage and Grow

There won’t be any evolution into leadership on either the leader or next-gen stakeholder side if there isn’t any intentional action to make that happen. 

Leaders, you must engage with your stakeholders, understand what interests them, give them opportunities to learn new things and demonstrate your knowledge, then map out a timeline of milestones to keep track of progress.

And next-generation stakeholders, you must be intentional about asking for new tasks that interest you, participating in your own growth by exploring what career options are available in the industry and your core strengths, and working to gain new knowledge and demonstrate that knowledge to your leaders.

James Cash Penney, founder of retailer J.C. Penney, famously said, “Growth is never by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together.”

Work together to create something that can bear fruit for all.

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