Talking about leadership development, most materials focus on identifying high potential candidates and ensuring they access the programs needed to achieve that potential. However, the subject of high-stake leadership positions being available for them to fill is rarely discussed.

The reason is, of course, the delicacy of the matter.

If an organization appears to be pushing young and upcoming individuals forward while telling (in one way or another) senior leaders that they should consider retirement, it can come across as discriminatory and agist. Both are words that can scare the wits out of any serious HR specialist.


Read more: E-learning for leadership development is on the rise


Ignoring it, however, does not make the issue go away, so in this article, I will talk about elegant and people-centric ways to see the leadership development program from start to end instead of abandoning it halfway.

It is as much about young leaders as it is about seniors, simultaneously

Many HR specialists have a misconception that the two categories of leaders are mutually exclusive for any organizational development endeavor. Yet, the same HR people claim that information and experience sharing are key to an effective learning program, especially when it is aimed at something as important as succession in leadership roles.

The issue is by no means going to diminish in the coming years as statistics indicate that the Baby Boomer generation, in theory approaching the end of their career, has a different, less traditional approach to retirement. With the life expectancy in the US having increased to 78.6 years old, many employees in senior positions choose to continue working regardless of age. Since this generation is also known for its ambition, many of its members feel intrinsically connected to their job roles and regard leaving them as a major setback in life.


Read more: How to go about a multi-generational approach to e-learning


Retirement needs to become a normal topic of discussion within the organization

Very few companies have managed to incorporate this conversation positively. Most ignore it altogether, save from some presentations having to do with the financial aspects. And even those e-mails are not very frequent; they usually come up only once, at the end of a fiscal year, and the reason for them has more to do with accounting than with people management.

There are at least four different ways people perceive retirement, and it is essential both to acknowledge them and provide the resources employees will need to move forward. These ways of perceiving retirement are:

  1. As a continuation of the current situation and way of life – employees who want to continue working even if only part-time, project-based, or as consultants.
  2. As an opportunity to start fresh and do something else entirely – an ideal situation in which people are genuinely excited about retirement and look forward to it.
  3. As an unwelcome but necessary disruption – retirement is not regarded in an entirely positive light, but people feel it is necessary for their circumstances.
  4. As a negative change that only acts as the antechamber to old age – this category will certainly require the most assistance and support throughout the process.

Taking into account the needs and best-case scenarios for both new and senior leaders

Placing the two categories together in a leadership development program is not as daunting as one would think, as long as it is done in a transparent, authentic manner. The HR department needs to consider both parties, their needs, and the resources necessary for these to be met.

Here are some questions to be answered before designing the program:

  • For senior leaders:
    • What will make them feel valued by the organization in the context of a knowledge exchange program?
    • What is the best way for them to contribute pre-exit to the current talent pool in the organization?
    • What is the optimal means of communicating such a program (there is a need for it to be delicate and respectful)?
    • How would a non-problematic, gradual exit look like for these individuals?
  • For up-and-coming leaders:
    • What support system do they need to be able to ask questions and find out more about leadership?
    • What are some good opportunities for them to have meaningful encounters with senior leaders?
    • What’s the best way to set up a community in which they can share experiences and learn?
    • What will be their plan B if they don’t feel comfortable in a leadership role?

Read more: 4 Interesting trends in executive development


Building a framework for both up-and-coming and senior leaders

Having clear answers to all (or most) of the questions above should make it easier to develop a structure to facilitate knowledge transfer and leadership succession.

There are several options for pairing up employees. One approach is to have senior leaders who are not yet close to retirement mentor the newest high potential employees. This works best as job shadowing and both formal and informal mentoring.


Read more: Using mentoring as a leadership accelerator within your organization


Leaders approaching retirement in a few years can work closely with already established managers or subject matter experts to ensure there will be no gaps in the organizational leadership. Even if these senior managers do not mentor their direct successors, their input will still be valuable.

Last but not least, there should be a well-oiled procedure in place for high-stakes executive positions that are approaching vacancy. It’s the most delicate situation, but a flawless handover is paramount, so it is worth the effort of finding a personalized solution for each situation.

Closing thoughts

Leadership development is crucial to the success of any organization. Focusing only on that while ignoring leadership succession pipelines can only lead to dissatisfied high potential employees thickening turnover rates, while senior leaders get frustrated by not being allowed to be mentors and showcase their rich experience. It’s a delicate topic, for sure, but a good framework that deals with leadership development from beginning to end is essential.

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