The five critical experiences that leaders need to excel

The path to leadership often happens automatically: you start at the bottom, work hard and your performance stands out among the team. Then comes the first promotion to manager. And then the second. For a long time, this has been the natural order of things. But being a high performer as an individual contributor doesn’t guarantee you’ll be a good leader.


As organisations are increasingly facing a leadership shortage, they can’t afford to rely on this haphazard approach to leadership development. The combined effects of the talent crunch and the ageing population mean good leaders are hard to find; they must instead be consciously developed.

Building on existing research into the importance of on-the-job leadership experiences, Korn Ferry has identified how specific experiences shape leadership at the five major levels of leadership. By understanding the specific challenges and requirements at each level, HR can help leaders make each leadership transition more successfully.

Not all experiences are created equal

For a long time, research has emphasised the importance of experience in leadership development. It’s one of the primary sources of learning and can account for as much as 70% of a leader’s development.

But ‘experience’ at large won’t necessarily create a good leader, or ensure they can adapt to the increasing responsibilities as they move into more and more senior positions. Climbing the ladder of leadership success is not always easy. Often emerging leaders find themselves taking on more work and responsibilities while also trying to lead larger teams.

While overall leadership skill requirements do increase as individuals move up in an organisation, research shows that not all leadership skills change at the same rate. For example, some cognitive skill requirements are important at all leadership levels, while strategic skill requirements only fully emerge at the highest levels in the organisation. Understanding the most frequently cited experiences during leadership transitions can therefore have important implications for shaping leaders’ careers.

The five key levels of leadership

Based on a sample of 5,495 leaders, the Korn Ferry leadership model identifies five major levels of leadership: first-level leader, mid-level leader, business-unit leader, senior executive, and chief executive.

Our research helps companies to identify which experiences provide the relevant skills to prepare leaders for future roles by focusing on the key leadership transitions, for example:

  • The transition from first-level to mid-level leader is characterised by experiences that involve facing challenges and overcoming adversity.
  • The transition from mid-level leader to business-unit leader is associated with experiences that are highly visible and closely aligned with organisational strategy.
  • The transition from business-unit leader to senior executive is characterised by a focus on strategy and on critical/risky assignments and a noteworthy increase in both the type and number of these experiences.

The model then identifies the five critical experiences that differentiate the levels to empower organisations to build development plans that will set leaders up for success. The critical experiences in the first transition, for example, indicate that leadership development training at the first-level will be important to equip new mid-level leaders to manage difficult staffing and interpersonal experiences.


These five experiences establish a path that leaders can follow to build skills at each stage of their careers, leveraging previous experiences to transition successfully to the next stage. The path isn’t prescriptive, indeed each individual path will differ. But by using these key experiences as signposts along the way, organisations and individual leaders can be sure they’re headed in the direction of leadership success.

To learn more, our report: Transitions in Leadership Experience.