Filling the Leadership Pipeline: How to Develop Your Next Wave of Leaders

A snapshot of a company's leadership pipeline

All businesses experience change over time, but a leadership pipeline can prepare them to weather any storm

Good leadership is not just about developing your business. It’s also about contributing to your company’s future by building up the next generation of leaders. As an organization grows, a leadership pipeline is essential for identifying promising candidates and helping them transition to new roles as seamlessly as possible. Unfortunately, companies prioritizing growth over stability tend to overlook these pipelines, a short-term perspective leading to long-term problems.

On the other hand, when companies use the right leadership pipeline model to develop up-and-coming managers and executives, steady growth is just one of the benefits.

What is a leadership pipeline model?

The leadership pipeline model is a process for identifying potential leaders within a business and preparing them for senior roles. Walter Mahler first formalized the concept of developing leaders internally in the 1970s, eventually expanding his research to create the field of “succession planning.” Mahler’s early work remains foundational for many of the leadership development models you’ll learn about online or in seminars anywhere in the world, but it’s important to view them in a contemporary context and adapt thinking to meet modern demands.

The leadership pipeline differs from hiring outside executives to meet specific goals or requirements. Instead, it helps find individuals who leverage their knowledge of the workplace to implement plans more effectively. It also provides a framework for training prospective leaders so they can transition into new roles with minimal onboarding. A truly effective leadership pipeline will develop the capabilities of employees across generational differences, ensuring both a steady source of leadership for years to come and that employees of all ages feel empowered by the process.

How to identify future leaders in your organization

Employees don’t automatically become effective leaders because they join a particular department or stay for a certain number of years, and great leaders can come from anywhere in a company. One may be an employee who understands team dynamics, while another could be an assistant with a knack for organizing projects. These kinds of individuals are invaluable to any organization because they spend less time transitioning to executive or management roles.

So how do you find the next great leader on your team and start leadership development early for promising candidates? Instead of looking for a single “aha” moment, pay attention to a broad range of traits that indicate their potential. Here are some of the most commonly cited qualities that identify strong candidates across leadership pipeline models.


Never underestimate the potential of a person excited about their work. These individuals are not only motivated to excel and improve themselves, but their enthusiasm can be infectious, encouraging others to perform even better. 

Willingness to learn

Leadership is rarely about maintaining your course in clear waters. Instead, it is about being prepared for whatever weather comes your way. Effective leaders are interested in and willing to learn about varied subjects, particularly those outside their role or department. That doesn’t mean looking for people who are already gifted experts, but rather those who express interest in learning new things.


One of the essential characteristics of a leader is taking responsibility for team failures just as frequently as acknowledging successes — perhaps even more so. A person who fails at a task owns their mistake and makes an effort to improve shows better leadership potential than someone who never makes (or admits to) a single error.

Strong character

Personality traits like honesty, compassion, respect, and fairness are as crucial to long-term success as productivity and performance. Leaders who lack or suppress these traits in others tend to produce dysfunctional environments with high turnover and low morale. Be on the lookout for individuals who follow the organization’s core values, especially when doing so is difficult.

How to develop a leader

Once you’ve identified potential leaders, developing their capabilities is next. All teams should understand how to develop leadership qualities in a person who doesn’t have leadership experience, but that may be harder than it sounds. Modern business operations are evolving to include remote technology and multigenerational work cultures not accounted for by traditional leadership pipeline models.

Tailoring the following methods to your organization can give new leaders what they need to succeed:

  • Delegate responsibilities: There’s a reason “learn by doing” became such a familiar catchphrase. Since most leaders and managers have many tasks, they can delegate some to potential leaders as training opportunities. As a bonus, their outside perspective might reveal solutions or inefficiencies that you’d never considered. Once a task is complete, review their efforts, note anything they did well, and point out potential improvements.
  • Set leadership goals: Reaching and exceeding personal goals can motivate leaders to push forward, especially when learning something new. Outside of day-to-day performance, work with potential leaders to find objectives that emphasize leadership capabilities — particularly strategy, organization, decision-making, and critical thinking. 
  • Coach them in coaching: Daniel Golman’s formative work, Leadership That Gets Results, names coaching as one of the most important leadership styles — the practice of developing people so they can tackle future challenges. In many ways, this technique is the one that helps employees become the best versions of themselves, but it’s also one of the hardest to learn. That’s why it’s vital to coach new leaders on becoming coaches who help their team members succeed. Focus on sharpening their leadership capabilities, making time for conversations, and showing interest in employees so they can be great coaches and better leaders.

Every organization experiences change as team members come and go, but without a leadership pipeline model, a loss of executive expertise is inevitable. When you know how to develop leadership competencies within your team, it’s far easier to weather these changes while helping the business — and its new leaders — grow and thrive.

Sounding Board’s customizable tech-based coaching platform can help your organization reach its leadership pipeline goals faster and keep your company set for success for years to come. If you’d like to learn more about how we can help, request a demo today.


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