OPINION21 September 2023

How do you help your people become strong leaders?

Opinion People Wellbeing

Promoting on future potential, creating different pathways and setting expectations are some of the key steps for research agencies to take if they want to properly support the next generation of leaders, says Zoe Fenn.

Training staff

There is a blueprint for being a great researcher and processes to be followed to deliver a project successfully, whereas leadership, especially the modern definition, is much more fluid, expansive and full of paradoxes – quick wins versus long-term vision, being humble versus acting with resolve, and inviting discussion versus being decisive.

This is to be heralded, but comes with challenges that I am not sure research agencies are helping their growing talent address. Early leadership is a key break point as people struggle to both do and lead, and can we afford for this level to fall short?

By focusing on delivery over relationship building, on personal performance versus collective brilliance, this cohort costs the business money, and it negatively impacts the health of our emerging leaders, who report high levels of burnout, especially post Covid-19.

But the transition from doing the research, to leading teams and building a revenue pipeline is not easy. It asks researchers to do two things. First, diluting the very strengths that saw them gain promotion – independent working, accuracy and compliance. When over-played, these lead to perfectionism, micromanagement, overwork and burnout.

It also asks researchers to dial up different qualities – empowering and enabling others, building relationships, trusting your own gut.

If you want to set the next generation of leaders at your agency up for success, there are seven steps you can take.

1. Set the expectation

The jump to director-level is not incremental like the steps up the researcher ladder; the ask is fundamentally different and we need to make this explicit.

2. Promote on future potential

We want to reward past performance, but when communicating the promotion, also highlight future potential, the leadership strengths you see in your talent and how that will help them build teams and client relationships.

3. Create different pathways

Not everyone wants to lead or will be good at it. Create different progression routes for individual contributors and those great at managing processes, but not leading people.

4. Let staff learn, practice, fail, re-learn and repeat

Easy learning does not build strong skills. Bring in training that allows them to identify and then put into practice the new skills they need to develop.

5. Set up support networks

Mentoring, advocates and peer group support are some of the ways people can feel inspired, challenged, encouraged and supported as they feel their way into their leadership roles.

6. Provide feedback

Knowing how we are doing is vital for confidence building and for tackling unhelpful behaviours quickly.

7. Get out of the way

An agency leader once said to me “no one is ever prepared to give up their role”, and so ask yourself “who’s going to replace you, and what are you willing to give up to help them succeed?”

If we want a profitable agency and happy people, and if we want courageous, innovative, empathetic leaders for our industry, then we have to help them get there.

Zoe Fenn is the founder of You Burn Bright