Business owners are always on the lookout for the next great leader who can help the company thrive into the future, as existing leadership and ownership move toward an elevated role or even retirement.
In most cases, business leaders will look inside the company. This is almost always the best place to find the next leader, as they are familiar, have already proven themselves to be capable in their current job and are dedicated to the company. Identifying people in your organization who you believe to have high potential for leadership can be relatively easy — you likely know who’s doing a great job and whose team responds well to their leadership in their current position. But transitioning a mid-level manager to a business leadership position isn’t a quick decision — it’s a process. Before you elevate the next great leader of your company, you must take the time to mentor them and prepare them for their new role, which will be much different than their existing role.
In his book “Ownership Thinking,” Brad Hams suggests owners and employees have different mentalities and focus on different things. Business owners focus on things like profit, cash flow, risk, competition and employees. Employees, meanwhile, including middle management, think about things like their paycheck, benefits, getting the job done right, job security and their opportunities for growth. Moving from one train of thought to the other is not an easy transition and can create a problem when elevating a new leader from an “employee” mindset to an “ownership” mindset
The problem, as Hams describes it, is that manager can get stuck “managing down.” This means focusing on managing a team, rather than managing a business. To become an effective executive in a business, a leader must also learn to manage up (pleasing leadership) and manage across (working effectively with peers and other departments) as well as managing down. It’s quite a balancing act and takes some time to learn the new role — and unlearn their former role. Some middle managers can become protectionists — of their team and of their department. To become successful in an executive position, that thinking must change to a more “global,” ownership thought process. Focused and dedicated mentorship is the best way to turn high-potential employees into successful executives.
The reason mentorship works is simple: repetition and experience. When you mentor a high-potential leader over the course of many months (or preferably years), that person will benefit from changing their thinking gradually as they are exposed to the realities of the new position. They will not learn to change their thinking overnight — no one does. But with guidance and experience they will become the leader you envision they can be. There are a variety of ways to mentor, but the following are a few good tips on the process.
- Create a decision tree: Create a list that prioritizes what the new leader’s focus will be — risk, profits, employees, etc. This is the first step in changing their focus and eventually, their internal thinking. With a new position comes new focus, and a decision tree is a simple tool to help reinforce that focus.
- Open the curtain: Let your mentee peek behind the curtain to see how decisions are made at the senior level. By exposing them to how the leadership sausage is made, they’ll gain a new outlook on what matters, and what the most important decisions in a business are. Invite them to important meetings, like SWOT analysis meetings, and ask for their input.
- Challenge them: Give emerging leaders the chance to think critically and demonstrate what decisions they would make for the business. Challenge them to outline their thought process, and then coach them as needed.
- Change thinking down the line: Encourage them to start sharing the reasoning behind their decisions with their current teams, helping everyone under them adopt an ownership mentality as well. A good example of this may be that when employees are asking for a pay raise and are denied, letting them know the reason is financial not personal.
- Incentivize Them: Nothing changes thought and action faster than incentives. Incentivize your future leaders with compensation based on performance of the company. This will shift focus to the bottom line.
In the end, there are two main themes to focus on when trying to shift the mindset of middle managers to become business leaders: conversation and compensation. Spend the necessary time mentoring and discussing the business with your future leaders, and ensure they are compensated for their future performance.