Let’s be candid: you can’t stay in your leadership role forever. In some way, at some point, you will move on to a more prominent role, to another company, or retire. One of the best things you can do for your organization in your current position is build a pipeline of leaders on your team. A great way to develop those leaders is to provide them with informal leadership opportunities.
Informal leadership roles can take a variety of forms. Perhaps there’s a role on your team that requires a point person who can manage one aspect of your responsibilities. It could be an ad hoc assignment that requires someone to organize and manage a special project. Or there may be a place for someone to step in while a colleague is out for an extended leave.
Whatever the reason, these informal roles can allow you to observe development opportunities, discover new talent, and accomplish important tasks that sometimes languish without leadership.
And informal roles are beneficial to your team members as well. These roles can allow inexperienced team members to develop skills and explore new areas of interest. They can also provide an environment where these informal leaders can explore whether leadership is something they want to pursue. And perhaps most importantly, they give developing leaders an opportunity to succeed or fail in a safe environment.
But cultivating leadership through these informal roles isn’t as simple as just passing on an assignment and waiting for results. Employees who are still developing their leadership skills need support and guidance from those in authority positions to make the most of these opportunities. A series of studies of informal leaders revealed that their informal roles could lead to low energy levels and reduced job satisfaction. However, the same studies found that support from formal managers significantly reduced these risks.
As you look to develop the leadership talent in your organization through informal leadership roles, there are several ways you can provide the support and guidance that will help those developing leaders in your pipeline grow and flourish in their roles.
1. don't MicromanageDelegating leadership roles is sometimes more challenging for the one delegating than for the one receiving the role. It can be tempting to micromanage when putting a critical task or function into someone else’s hands. However, the best thing for you and your informal leader is to allow the new leader to fully embrace the role—without micromanagement from above. (For more about how to avoid micromanaging, check out our tips here and here.)
2. Do give outward support
Ensure appropriate team members and stakeholders throughout your organization know that your informal leader is spearheading a task or role. Point others in the direction of that leader as appropriate. Highlight the key successes of your informal leader publicly.
3. don't Rely Too Much on One or Two Talented People
One sure way to burn out your best developing leaders is to rely too much on them every time a new opportunity comes along. Look around in your organization and on your team for other untested people who may simply need a chance to demonstrate their skills and talents.
4. Do Offer Leadership Guidance
Be sure to spend time with your informal leaders one-on-one to offer advice and guidance on handling tricky leadership issues. Allow those developing leaders to ask questions and learn from your successes and failures as a leader. Be a coach for your informal leaders.
5. Don't Expect Informal Leaders to do Multiple Jobs
When moving someone into an informal leadership role that doesn’t flow naturally from that person’s existing responsibilities, be deliberate about defining how the temporary position will fit with the current job description. For example, expecting someone to spearhead a special event may be something entirely outside the scope of their current role. It might be necessary to allow that leader to cut back some existing duties to take on the ad hoc assignment.
6. Do Set Expectations UpFront
It can be very easy to let someone simply drift into an informal leadership role that ends up leading to burnout or job dissatisfaction. Instead, define informal leadership responsibilities and expected outcomes upfront, and then stick to those.
As you look at developing your leadership pipeline, do not neglect the value of informal leadership opportunities. With the right approach, these roles can be an invaluable way to grow the emerging leaders in your midst and create a talent pool that will keep your organization thriving long after you’re lounging on a beach and enjoying your retirement.