How to Prepare a Rising Star for Leadership

How to Prepare a Rising Star for Leadership

It’s a common mistake to promote star employees into leadership roles before they’re ready, or before they fully understand their new responsibilities. Both you and the employee in question can end up feeling dissatisfied if you move too quickly. Becoming a manager is a big step, and it takes any employee time to adjust to the additional expectations.

In this episode, Suzi Alligood, VP of People Development & Culture at Xenium, shares what Xenium learned recently by going through this exact scenario. We’ll discuss the steps employers can take to ensure they have a proper leadership development plan in place. We’ll also identify the skills needed to move into leadership and how to develop them before that transition into management takes place.


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Run Time: 34:54

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Brandon Laws:

Hey, welcome back for another episode of the Human Resources for Small Business Podcast. I’ve got Suzi Alligood back with me. Suzi, it’s nice to have you back so soon.

Suzi Alligood: Yeah, great to be here.

Brandon: Yeah. We just did a podcast on harassment so go check that one out. There are three key actions for preventing harassment in the workplace.

We were actually having a conversation months ago about – well, actually this all really came from a book that we read as a leadership group, The Leadership Contract.

It really hit home for us because I think often, employers are pushing people on the management track before they’re ready. And you brought up some really good points about how as employers can we get people ready or prepared to take on those management roles. Because the point of Leadership Contract is, do you agree with this or not. And some people aren’t really ready for it and don’t agree to it.

What are your thoughts on that?

Suzi: Yeah. The book was really eye-opening for us because many employers, especially small employers, as you grow, recognize the need to have additional layers of management or leadership. And so, you generally pluck your top performers and put them in that role.

Brandon: Yeah.

Suzi: And from your vantage point, you’re feeling great like, “Hey, I’m providing this person with this great opportunity and they’re going to be happy. And here, we’ve got career pathing and all of this going on in our organization.” When sometimes that’s not the best decision because you may have top performers or people who are subject matter experts or have strong technical skills who really don’t have a passion for being a supervisor of others.

And you can actually find yourself in a position of having declined performance from that individual for that reason, or even potentially losing that key contributor if you put them in a leadership role and they’re not ready.

And the challenge is that people often don’t have awareness around their readiness. So employers, hopefully as part of their performance management process, they’re having regular discussions and dialog with their employees about what’s next for you, what do you see as your career path? And we may not have a promotion in the near future but let’s start having these conversations to really get clear about what really motivates you and what are the aspects of your job that you enjoy most and what do you want to do and learn more about.

Brandon: That would be the proactive way. But what often happens, why people get pushed up the management track, is that because of competency they’re really good at what they’re doing. So, to get more money, the next best thing is to become a manager title. Is that why?

Suzi: Yes. So, there’s usually a business feed and there’s usually a key contributor, right? And so, there are many win-win situations there. But often, there are also situations — which Xenium, honestly, we’re consulting and training on best practices, and we’ve found ourselves falling into this trap where you have this key contributor who is highly valued, you want to make sure that person is challenged and engaged, and so you promote them.

And in our case, like many employers, we didn’t give the person time to consider. Leadership Contract, it states, “Leadership is a decision.” And so, you really need to provide a realistic preview and certainly a job description so that the person understands, “What am I giving up and what am I going to be expected to do more of and differently?”

Brandon: They may love the work and not the people side to it.

Suzi: Yes. And the whole concept of The Leadership Contract is that I am consciously deciding and committing to being a leader of others. And employees need to know that this isn’t necessarily a requirement for your continued progression or success in this organization so that they have permission to say no because often what happens is employees will accept the role because they are worried that this is their only means of growing and advancing their career.

So that’s why these really open, authentic discussions need to happen.

Brandon: That actually could be the case — in some cases, if this is where the business is going, this is what the needs are, but let’s figure that out. I think that’s where you’re talking about proactive discussion back and forth because if they’re not going to agree to it then let’s figure out something else.

Suzi: Yeah, absolutely. And there’s still maybe a place for a very technical subject matter expert individual to grow within your organization or continue to add value. And so, it’s worth exploring that if you’re trying to retain that talent.

Brandon: Let’s take the example – you said this has happened to us. So let’s take this example of what could we have done differently? Look, and obviously hindsight is 20/20, what could we have done differently to prepare?

Suzi: Yes.

Brandon: So if we provide that opportunity to say, “Hey, we can get you on the management track.” Obviously, a very key contributor within the function, what would we have done differently?

Suzi: Yeah. And it was a hard lesson that people have to learn because we care so much about our people and our culture that we found ourselves in a reactive position, unfortunately. And we didn’t think it through and properly equip and prepare this individual or even give them the option of the decision, in a way. We kind of sold them on it because that’s what we needed.

But like I mentioned before, if you’re being strategic, hopefully you’re looking ahead and identifying your talent needs based on your business growth so that you’re not in a reactive position. We know that’s not always practical.

But if you do find yourself in a position of needing to elevate someone or hire someone, even from the outside in a leadership role, then it is worth taking the time to really evaluate the individual just like you would an external candidate. You go through an interview process. Make sure that you are painting a realistic job preview. You’re having a discussion around, OK, what are the competencies associated with this role and what are the areas that you are strong in and what’s going to be our plan for developing in these other areas.

And ideally, that is done before the person is thrust into that role because here, you have someone who is a high performer and they’re all of a sudden thrust into this role and they have employees coming at them from all directions.

Brandon: Yeah.

Suzi: This is what happened to our employee. She agreed because she cares about the company and the culture. Didn’t really have an opportunity to evaluate, is this the best fit for my interests and goals, accepted the position to be a team player. Her performance went down, even though she struggled, because she had people coming at her from all directions and she didn’t have the training or the support to be able to effectively help those folks and balance the duties of her job.

And we ended up sending her to training after she was promoted. And she has actually, she gave us this feedback thankfully, but she is sitting in the trainings and she is thinking, “You know, we’re not following our own recommendations.”

It just sends the wrong message. And a hard lesson to learn for us but it’s one that employers really need to be paying attention to if they care about their people and their culture.


Brandon: I think that’s a great point because we’re obviously telling the story of what happened. We’re not isolated to this. Employers are doing this all the time. So they have somebody who is a high performer, they need a manager, they fill the role without an agreement, very little training, experiential learning or any of that going on in advanced.

So let’s say we’ll take the proactive approach now from that lesson learned, now employers who listen to the story can take the proactive approach. In advance of that agreement, “OK, yeah, I want to become a leader, this is the path for me,” what can an employer do from a competency standpoint? What competencies and skills or on-the-job experience or learning needs to happen in advance for that person to really understand what they’re getting into?

Suzi: Yes. So I think it’s a combination of things like you said. I think it’s some training based on best practices but also some experiential learning.

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Brandon: Yeah. That would be the hardest one I would think because you’re not usually used to this one thing unless you’re shadowing all the time or leading people.

Suzi: Yeah. I mean I am – I think easing someone in to a new role and helping them find their balance because you’re – once you are a supervisor and no longer an independent contributor, the single biggest challenge is how do I balance what’s on my desk with what’s on other’s desks. And that’s the biggest challenge. It’s that time management, it’s a prioritization, planning, and organizing work.

And so, I think the more you can ease someone into that, so maybe having them do it on a part-time basis or be in a lead role where they are working alongside a current supervisor and backing them up. Obviously, organizations may not always have that luxury. But I think if you can give them some taste of what it would be like and slowly increase the responsibilities, that is the best case.

Another example which I’ve had a couple of clients do is they have created a leadership development program where they have us, for example, come in and facilitate customized workshops all based on those core competencies for being a good supervisor and leader.

And they offer training once a month. And they pull all of their leaders and emerging leaders together. So you have people who are in lead roles, who are just kind of dipping their toe into the water of leadership, you have your mid-level managers, and then you have your senior leaders and they’re all in this cohort, so to speak, together learning the same skills, sharing experiences.

Brandon: That’s interesting.

Suzi: And it provides that more junior member or independent contributor who is considering moving up into a leadership role the opportunity to really assess, OK, is this …

Brandon: Well, they get to hear the stories, right? They get to be in the room with people who have been through it, and can actually tell the stories that you wouldn’t want to hear or that you wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.

Suzi: Yeah. And it’s actually the thing that I love about it too is that it becomes a team building opportunity too. People have an opportunity to connect with each other outside of the day-to-day operations and also they have opportunity to really get aligned on their leadership practices as a team.

Brandon: So, you were saying a second ago, ease them into emerging leaders. So, let’s take myself as an example. Let’s say there was a position I was looking at accepting at some point. So maybe it’s January 1st. And then how long would this timeframe take place – for development programs, experiential learning? Are we talking like July 1st, and it’s like a 6-month program before I decide whether or not I want the job? How does that look?

Suzi: Yeah. I would say, if you’re a large organization, you probably have the ability to have a more structured management training program like that.

Brandon: Yeah.

Suzi: But smaller organizations need to be a little bit more nimble and flexible generally.

Brandon: Yeah.

Suzi: So, here is the key. If supervisors are having ongoing discussions at least monthly with their direct reports about, “Hey, let’s discuss your strengths, your interests, your aspirations. And if there is an understanding there that, “Hey, I am considering a supervisor position or I am interested in moving into this role,” then let’s start now exposing you to some opportunities. So let’s set some goals right now before a position even opens up. And that may be three months from now, one year from now, two years from now. We don’t know all the time.

But if we’re having that dialog and we have identified that this person has some skills in a particular area that are of benefit to the business and they have an interest and desire to lead others then that’s when you start setting some goals around, “OK, how can we start exposing you to some other on-the-job opportunities or get you some professional development so that you can start building some of those knowledge, skills, and abilities in advance?” And also, in that process, decide, “OK, I need a firm “yeah, this is the path that I want to take.”

Brandon: You breezed over it really fast and I wanted to make sure I put you on the spot. What were those competencies for the supervisor or manager? Like if you’re going to put them into a couple of different buckets, what are those main competencies that they should get the training and development for?

Suzi: Sure. So there is usually a set of hard skills and soft skills associated with being a manager. So the hard skills are more around the role of a supervisor, understanding what are the basic employment laws that influence what decisions I make around employment, so hiring, performance management, termination. How do I appropriately respond to employee complaints? How do I hold people accountable to policies and performance exploitations?

So those are more the hard skills where you have some clear policies and procedures around supervising employees and some of that can include your performance management process, compensation as well.

Then there are the soft skills.

Brandon: Yeah.

Suzi: They’re more behavioral based.

Brandon: These are the harder ones. The experience is probably what’s going to help you with that.

Suzi: Exactly. So it’s the coaching.

Brandon: Yup.

Suzi: Feedback, communication obviously, conflict management, change, helping people through change. Also, being able to be strategic and understanding, OK, here is where the business is going and here are the knowledge, skills and abilities that we need, and how to put people in the right roles. So those are more the strategic and critical thinking skills.

So, they need both.

Brandon: Yeah.

Suzi: And usually, we build a curriculum, a core curriculum that addresses each one of those core competencies.

Brandon: Yeah. I was going to say that’s a lot of different areas of competencies. And if you really haven’t thoughtfully mapped that out, like what types of development you’re going to have for each of those competencies, I could see people just spinning their wheels, really not knowing how to develop certain areas.

So, what are you recommending for some of those categories? I don’t know if you want to just briefly mention some of those things but I imagine, obviously live workshops, group setting, what else?

Suzi: Yeah. So the hard skills around the laws, policies, procedures related to hiring and performance management, those can be delivered in a workshop format. So you can do a training on understanding the employment law and my role as a supervisor. We call it HR Basics, for example. You can do a workshop around the performance management process and our tools and how we use them. You can do a workshop around recognizing and preventing workplace harassment and how to appropriately respond to workplace complaints. So those can be offered either in a workshop format or even online learning.

Once you get into the soft skill areas, so talking about conflict communication.

Brandon: It seems like role play would be great for that.

Suzi: Yeah. The online training isn’t going to provide as much value.

Brandon: Probably a partner or a group to practice with.

Suzi: Exactly. And you only get better at those skills through practice and through making mistakes and making modifications. So, those are ongoing life-long development opportunities for us. And so again, knowing that, the earlier you can expose people to on-the-job and workshop opportunities, the better.

Brandon: I’ve always heard, and I think we say it, that employees should own their development and learning. But with the emerging leader, is there a balance? Is it driven by a manager or by executive leadership? Is it a combination of both? How does that sort of plan agreement work out?

Suzi: In my experience, I find that it’s best if it’s a partnership.

Brandon: Yeah. It’s a two-way dialog.

Suzi: Yeah. And ultimately, the employees, us as individuals, are responsible for our performance. We all know we can’t manage people or motivate people. They are responsible for their own performance and success. But we need, as employers and leaders, to make sure that we’re engaging employees in that conversation, that we’re sharing what’s going on in the business, and what opportunities might be available for these individuals so that they can participate in that conversation, and they have an understanding that there’s an investment in them and what options might exist for them.

Brandon: Nowadays with technology, I think people are probably wanting to resort to being behind their computer for training, or reading a book, or whatever it may be. What have you found in terms of alternative development opportunities for those competencies — management and leadership — where if an emerging leader can’t necessarily go to a workshop like what you’re describing here for those competencies, what can they do that’s going to develop those over time?

Suzi: There are plenty of great books out there. If you can incorporate that with some social learning like the book groups that we do.

Brandon: Yeah.

Suzi: That’s often valuable. There are some great online resources whether it would be training or articles or podcasts. It’s interesting that you bring that up because time is so precious and everybody is learning on demand. But I actually have had more requests still to-date around instructor-led workshops.

Employers are still wanting to invest in bringing a third party, even if they have their own HR person. They find benefit in bringing in a third party who can reinforce what HR has communicated in terms of best practices but also someone who has some skills around facilitation and learning, to get the team together in a safe, collaborative environment and get them discussing, “OK, how do we want to show up as leaders? What are going to be our consistent best practices? And how can we start in a safe environment testing out and practicing these soft skills that we talked about to increase our effectiveness?”

So it’s interesting. You have to as a company like us, a training company, you have to make sure that you have e-learning options. But I’m finding that they’re not replacing the other types of training. It’s more of a supplement or maybe a stop gap.

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Brandon: It’s probably for those that really can’t get to the in-person stuff. Maybe they’re working out of their home or something or just time of the day doesn’t work for them or something. But I’ve got a theory behind why we’re still getting the live workshops versus the other stuff. And I think it’s because there’s so much content out there. It’s so fragmented. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run across a marketing course online where I buy it because it’s cheap.

Suzi: It sounds good.

Brandon: It sounds good. And it just sits in my library and I’ve never taken it because I still resort to the experience first and then I love to read so I always would take those two things first. And I think the other part of it — why live workshops make sense — is you’re going to have one instructor who knows the curriculum, knows what’s probably right for this group, they customize it, and then it’s a dialog starter between a group of people that all worked together. Versus if everybody is doing their own thing, I don’t know how effective that would be.

Suzi: Yeah. Well, there’s no sharing for sure.

Brandon: Yeah, definitely.

Suzi: There’s no social learning piece and there are certainly no action items.

Brandon: Yeah.

Suzi: That comes out of it. Yeah, it’s interesting. I thought there would be more of a demand for the online learning in lieu of the workshops or as an alternative but I am definitely seeing both and a key interest in the workshops.

Brandon: Yeah.

Suzi: I do have a client who, for example, if they promote some folks or are getting ready to promote some folks, before they can schedule a team workshop, they may offer an online learning. So, just kind of priming the person.

Brandon: I’ve also seen with new employees too where it’s like, “Hey, I’ve got a new employee starting. Let’s enroll them in this e-course.” Just because it’s the standard one that maybe everybody has gone through so it seems like it’s appropriate in that case. But yeah, I don’t think – to your point, I don’t think it’s replaceable. I don’t think it replaces the live workshops.

Suzi: Yeah. I think you need a blended learning approach for sure. Well, it’s interesting because I’ve noticed internally here, we had one of our senior leaders encourage a key contributor who is not in a supervisor role to enroll in one of our supervisor workshops. And I think that’s what we’re talking about here is the proactive step, because exposing that individual to what it looks like to effectively manage performance and to kind of engage and develop people will allow that person to figure out, “OK, is this something that I really aspire to do? And if so, I’m getting the information and starting to build these skills before my promotion comes up.”

Brandon: Something I saw you do years ago, I think with one of our bigger clients – I don’t think they are with us anymore – but you basically built a matrix. And maybe this is what you’re talking about from a professional development standpoint with the program that you build.

But you had the competencies listed down the left-hand side. And then you had the learning styles across the top. So it could be workshops, for example. So for this competency, you have this workshop. And then for this competency, maybe along the book column, you would have all the books listed.

So I thought that was a really cool approach. If you’re being really proactive with your employees about it, then build a matrix, and say, “Hey, this is where you’re going to go. This is what you’re going to need to do to get there.” And you start checking them off. Do you still do that?

Suzi: Yes, although not all clients, not necessarily.

Brandon: Or not proactive about it.

Suzi: Request that or need something that’s structured especially if they are building out a series of trainings. So, here’s the one thing … There are the foundational competencies which we talked about, those hard skills and soft skills that pretty much anybody who is in a manager role should have.

And so, a lot of our clients are taking the “Let’s build the foundation” approach. Let’s offer training and experiences in all of these key areas of hiring, coaching, leading employees. And then the next layer would be maybe being a little more detailed about defining, “OK, what are the leader competencies, specific competencies within our organization?” And then providing development recommendations. And you can do it based on the varying learning styles. So you could do workshop options, social learning options and experiential options.

And so, it would obviously take someone to help plug in those basics. But for each competency, there would be some options for the employees. So if I want to develop my change management or change leadership competency, what workshop is available for me to take, what books might be helpful and applicable if I’m doing self-study, what are some on-the-job or social learning experiences that might be available to me here at work that I can engage in so that I can start developing those competencies.

So that’s a very structured, thoughtful model that can work although I don’t know that it’s absolutely required for developing leadership skills.

Brandon: Something that I just thought of as we kind of wrap up. So let’s say an employer who is listening wants to develop some sort of program like this and there’s such an abundance of information out there. Like literally anybody who has a podcast mic like I have right here, they could create a podcast, they could create an e-learning course.

There’s a lot of bad information out there, right? We could be saying stuff that makes no sense and people take our advice because they trust us. But there’s a lot of bad stuff out there. How do people go about building a program and finding a third party that is going to fit their needs? Do they go on recommendations? Do they take the course themselves and figure it out? What do you think?

Suzi: Yeah. So I can tell you what we’ve seen from the market. So a lot of folks that come to us that haven’t had a prior relationship are coming through referrals or if they’re not coming through a referral or through their professional network, then they are finding us online. And generally will test out one of our workshops. So they’ll send an HR person or manager or maybe two to some of our workshops to get a sense of the content, engagement level, technical knowledge of the facilitators, is this all aligned with what we’re trying to accomplish?

So that’s generally how it works. I also have clients who are a little more conservative in committing to us building out a year’s worth of monthly trainings.

Brandon: Wow! That’s really proactive.

Suzi: Yeah. Some clients will say, “OK, well, let’s start with two. Let’s start with like an HR Basics.”

Brandon: So basically just get a feel for is this going to work or not?

Suzi: Exactly. And testing their audience to see how they respond.

Brandon: Get feedback from the employees afterwards too.

Suzi: Absolutely. That’s part of our process. That’s a standard part of our process. And a lot of times we use that opportunity to ask about their training needs and interests too if they haven’t done that before. So some of our clients are doing that where they’re like, “Let’s try out maybe an HR Basics or a Leadership Essentials and see how our group responds and if this is something that we want to continue.”

Brandon: As we kind of roll out of here, if somebody listening says, “Oh man, I want to have a conversation with you about developing a program like this,” what would your approach be to something like this? Because I’m sure they’ll experience that with any vendor building some sort of program, right? So what would you do to get to know them and then build it out?

Suzi: Yeah. Well, I always like to learn about their business and where they’re at in their growth and what the priorities are because that will inform training needs and what needs to be prioritized.

So for example, I just worked on a proposal for a very fast-growing wealth management organization and they’re looking to offer some core training for their supervisors. They have a lot of younger leaders in their company. And we were trying to figure out what the priorities were. And based on my dialog with the decision-maker, it was clear that, based on their fast growth, they were doing a lot of hiring.

And so, really important in that situation to make sure that you’re getting the right people. And they have some good clarity around their culture. And so, OK, do we have a thoughtful process and are people trained in order to recognize and vet out who is a culture fit? So, strategic hiring became the priority for training.

When they initially came to us, they were thinking, “OK, we’ve got to do harassment training just from a risk management standpoint.” But as we talked further about what’s going on in their business and what the needs were, we identified, yes, harassment training is important, but based on what’s going on in their business, they’ve got to get people up to speed on how to hire well.

Brandon: That’s fascinating. So you’re almost saying develop this program and tackle those needs first. That actually ended up having impact on their culture long term because people can actually figure out how to hire the right people.

Suzi: Yeah.

Brandon: I wouldn’t even have thought that.

Suzi: Yeah. So there’s a little consulting on the front end to understand what’s going on in their business. Also, understanding what’s the make-up of the group, who is going to be involved in the training, does senior leadership endorse this, are they going to be participating?

One of the things that’s a challenge often is that senior leadership will hire us to come in and do these workshops but they won’t be visible or even participate with their managers in these sessions. And so, it …

Brandon: Creates a divide almost.

Suzi: Well, some of the feedback we’ll get is, “Well, I wish my manager or senior leaders were in this training.” But in addition to that, what it’s inadvertently communicating is that, “Yeah, this is important but not important for me to be there.” It’s ‘kind of’ valued.

So that can hurt the engagement a little bit there and how people actually decide to apply what they’ve learned.

Brandon: Anything else you want to say on this?

Suzi: I could talk all day long.

Brandon: I know you could.

Suzi: Yeah.

Brandon: What do you want to leave people with before we part?

Suzi: Yeah. I think the final thing, back to what we talked about in the beginning, is employers care about their top performers and want to keep them. And the key is be thoughtful about putting them into manager or leadership roles without some discussion and some time devoted to exposing them to what that job is going to involve and what it would look like and giving them the opportunity to make a conscious decision and commitment. Because at the end of the day, that’s what leadership requires.

Brandon: Suzi, thanks for being a part of the podcast. It’s a lot of fun.

Suzi: Sure. My pleasure.


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Brandon Laws

As Director of Marketing, Brandon Laws leads all marketing efforts for Xenium, providing oversight on all marketing campaigns, digital marketing strategy, events, sponsorships and public relations. Brandon brings a positive energy to every aspect of his role at Xenium—from internal initiatives around culture and wellness to industry thought leadership through the Xenium podcast and other social efforts. Active within the HR community, he currently volunteers on the board of the Portland Human Resource Management Association as the Director of Marketing & PR.

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