Four Strategies of Developing Leadership Pipelines

Henry Chow set about introducing an internationally recognized leadership development system in China after taking the position as chairman of the board of IBM Great China. Managers of his company were told that development of direct subordinates would be included as an important part of their core responsibilities. Managers at all levels in his organization were asked to select and determine their successors right after they took office. Future leaders were informed that they had been identified and valued by the company and there would be professional guidance and abundant activities enabling them to be qualified for higher positions. What Henry Chow brought to his company was widely recognized as a bench plan in IBM.

IBM’s bench plan is a successful example showing the significance of building a leadership development pipeline. Then, what specific strategies could organizational executive leaders adopt to make the development of a leadership pipeline more effective in real practice? There are in total four strategies worthy of leaders’ reference which are described in detail as follows.

Incorporate Successor Development in the Performance Evaluation of Existing Leaders

Existing leaders may lack enough willingness and motivation to develop potential leaders and successors due to various reasons. Successor development should be included as an indispensable component of the performance evaluation of existing leaders. Organizational executive leaders need to evaluate whether existing leaders have the willingness to reserve and develop high-potential employees, since the conservative attitudes of many existing leaders are one of the causes of the failure of succession plans. If existing leaders do not take the initiative in cultivating prospective successors, then the shaping of leadership development pipelines will encounter a lot of obstacles.

Therefore, organizational executive leaders have to fully communicate with managers at all levels and obtain their understanding in, as well as support for, succession planning. In addition, discovery and cultivation of prospective leaders should be included in the overall evaluation and incentive system of existing managers. Organizational executive leaders must formulate and publicize rewarding measures for those who succeed in selecting and cultivating future leaders of their organizations. IBM’s bench plan was featured by the mandatory requirements of successor development for existing leaders.

Link Succession Planning with Existing HR Management System

Leadership pipeline development and succession planning should be linked with the existing HR management system. Heads of HR departments should be asked to shoulder direct responsibilities of developing future leaders and building leadership talent pools. IBM’s success in the cultivation of successors was closely linked to the participation and contribution of its HR team. The development of future leaders should be the core function of HR management and core responsibility of senior HR personnel. Leadership pipeline development cannot succeed without the assistance from and involvement of the organization’s HR system. Recruitment and selection, training and development, performance appraisal, compensation positioning and other operational functions of HR management should be examined and improved to better support the construction of leadership pipelines.

Identify the Gap of Job Requirements Between the Current Position and the Future Position of Successors

Competency models of successors’ future positions should be built and specified. Analysis of the gap of job requirements between the current position and the future position will be helpful to the formulation of talent development plans. Organizational executive leaders should find out the differences between the KSA (knowledge, skill and ability) of current positions and that of the future positions of successors. By comparing the KSA of current positions with that of the future positions, organizational executive leaders can plan and implement strategies of future leader development based on the identification of the competency gap of successors.

Plans of future leader development in many organizations failed because they were merely based on the job requirements of current positions.

Establish Diversified Selection and Cultivation Mechanisms for Prospective Leaders

Based on the results of periodical performance evaluation, potential leaders will be categorized into different types so as to develop them with differentiated channels and strategies. The process of leadership pipeline development normally starts from the performance evaluation of existing talents. Differentiated training and cultivation programs will be planned and conducted for talents with different performance evaluation results. The talents of potential leaders will be classified into four quadrants, which are presented in the following illustration (Figure 12.2).

Quadrant .: High Performance/Low Potential

For employees in this quadrant, continuous assessment as well as development should be done mainly by the HR department on a regular basis. It is suggested that career development of such employees should be shifted from the managerial path to the professional path if they fail to make expected improvement in terms of leadership within a certain period of time. Leaders should formulate either a managerial career path or professional career path for different talents.


Four types of potential leaders.

Quadrant .: High Performance/High Potential

Employees in this quadrant are the main sources of leadership talents in succession plans, who can be promoted in three different ways:

  • • Ready to go: They can be promoted to take on higher positions at once.
  • • Ready to go later: They can be promoted right after a short period of special training or coaching.
  • • Ready to go later if qualified: They should not be promoted until they are proved to be competent and qualified enough after further training, appraisal or job rotation.

Quadrant .: Low Performance/High Potential

HR department should do in-depth performance analyses and diagnoses for employees in quadrant Ш, finding out the root causes of their poor performance so as to formulate improvement plans. Employees in this quadrant should be offered sufficient tailor-made professional training and coaching. If they fail to make improvement after systematic training, root causes of low performance should be further analyzed and found out. If problems lie in the mismatch between people and position, then job rotations should be recommended and implemented.

Quadrant .: Low Performance/Low Potential

Employees in this quadrant should be included in the PEI (Performance Examination and Improvement) programs so as to exploit their potential for further development with combinations of methods and resources. Those who prove to be unqualified and incompetent should be laid off.

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