How Great Businesses Support the Next Generation of Leaders

Keeley Tillotson

What motivates leaders today?

Here at Spark, we are frequently in rooms with senior leaders who are struggling with hiring, retention, succession planning, or broader business issues like growth and innovation.


When we talk about what the next wave of leadership in their organization might look like, often there’s not a quick answer. We might see eye rolls, or refrains like:


“Nobody wants to work hard anymore.”

“I’m always the last one in the office at 5:30pm.”

“All our younger employees need their hands held for them. I had to figure things out myself when I was their age!”


In these recent years of high uncertainty and stress, I understand the attraction to jumping on the generational finger-pointing bandwagon. It’s a lot easier to blame fixed generational traits for an unengaged workforce than to get curious about the reasons your leadership bench seems empty.


Nevertheless, as a millennial myself, and also as someone who has hired team members across generations, I can tell you from experience that there is no generational hold on work ethic, intrinsic motivation, or any other specific quality. 


People are just people. 


What does seem clear, both anecdotally and in the data, is that workers’ incentives have shifted a lot in the last several years. What used to motivate us to show up to work and do our best work has changed, and it’s affecting every aspect of hiring, retention, and development.

Development Dimensions International recently published their 2023 Global Leadership Forecast, which surveyed 13,695 leaders and 1,827 HR Professionals across 1,556 Organizations, including a wide variety of fields. DDI surveyed leaders across generations, genders, races and countries. 


DDI described their 2023 group of survey participants as “a restless pipeline of leaders who are seeking more from their work and their employers… Leaders are exhausted by constant change.”


They also added an affirmation to those who feel that their teams aren’t willing to put in the same above-and-beyond effort as before: “As economic uncertainty looms ahead, leadership benches are thinning out and fewer people are willing to take on the additional responsibilities and hours.”


Basically: We’re tired – all of us, across generations. We’ve been overworked and under-inspired for a while now. We need more from our work in order to give more back.


DDI confirms what we’re seeing in our work at Spark: 

– 50% of CEOs struggle to develop their next generation of leaders

– 59% have a hard time attracting and retaining top talent

– 45% struggle to maintain an engaged workforce.

Oof. Kind of a tough environment, huh? And yet… the smartest companies will see this information as an opportunity rather than a challenge. 


If most leaders at most companies are feeling overworked and under appreciated, there is ample opportunity for great businesses to do a few things differently. These businesses will stand out from the crowd: and will reap the hiring, retention and culture benefits.


So, what can businesses focus on that will help them stand out?


DDI found that Senior Leaders who saw the best hiring, retention, and bench-building metrics with their team focused on the following things:


1) Maintaining trust with employees.

2) Encouraging others to challenge old ways of doing things.

3) Listening and responding with empathy (understanding others’ emotions).

4) Providing opportunities for team members to gain visibility.

Use 1:1 Meetings

In my experience as a leader, all of these can be accomplished through simple tools like having regular 1:1 meetings where the employee sets the agenda. If you as a leader consistently hold space for these meetings, listen and respond empathetically, and gather information about what your team is doing well in order to share and celebrate more broadly, you’re doing more than 99% of managers out there – truly.  1:1s are also a great tool to talk about what skills your team members are hoping to develop, or what role they’d like to hold next in their career. You can also use this time to offer constructive feedback and ensure job expectations are clear. This type of feedback is usually better received when it feels like it’s coming from a foundation of caring personally. 

Have Development Discussions

DDI found that, “when leaders understand their career path, they are 4x more likely to find their jobs full of meaning and purpose.” According to DDI, leaders who intend to stay with their organization:

1) Know what constitutes good performance in their role

2) Have a clear understanding of their future career path in the organization

3) Feel that their direct manager genuinely cares about their wellbeing


Finally, DDI found that leaders want to learn – and not just on their own, in make-it-or-break-it on-the-job situations.  “By far, leaders say that they want to learn through interactive experiences with their peers, with a smaller amount of self-driven learning. They ranked live, instructor-led training as their top choice, followed closely by professional coaching.”


If leadership development, team growth and retention are priorities for your organization, you can’t just cross your fingers and hope your team will gain new skills. Investing in professional training and/or coaching for high-potential team members is a great way to signal to team members that you’re willing to match their investment of hard work and energy with an investment in their growth. 


Just giving someone a job isn’t enough anymore – high potential leaders want to see and feel that they are valued. That may come across as entitled to those who didn’t come up through the ranks with that kind of culture – but it’s the new table stakes, and I personally think that our workplaces will be better for it. We’re creating more human workplaces, for all generations to grow and thrive in.  

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