Your future CFO, CMO, or CTO could already be at your company. It might be the mid-level manager who enthusiastically rallies her team to meet tight deadlines, the IT whiz who masters your tech stack after just weeks on the job, or the junior associate who wows clients with exceptional customer service.

But turning these talented individuals into your next C-Suite leaders is a long-term investment that some organizations find difficult to fulfill.

“Leadership development is rarely a day-to-day priority” Jane Stevenson, Vice Chair, Board and CEO Services at Korn Ferry, explains. “It ends up on the back burner until there’s a succession crisis”.

But if you want to ensure the best C-suite pipeline, you need to really connect the dots to identify, cultivate and incubate talent. “It’s easy to say this is an objective but much harder to make it happen,” adds Stevenson.

Do you know how to identify and develop your most promising people at all levels to prepare them for eventual careers in the C-Suite? Here, we run through seven essentials to building a successful C-Suite leadership pipeline.

Seven essentials to build a C-suite leadership pipeline

A robust talent pipeline is not an accident. It’s created through a thoughtful, intentional process requiring buy-in at all levels of leadership.

1 Design your ideal leadership profile

What qualities do your future C-Suite leaders need to have? Start by considering how you define success and failure at your organization. Then use this to think about your ideal leader and the types of characteristics they have.

To help identify these traits, look at both your current C-suite members and other senior leaders in your organization to understand the competencies and experience they have that ensures they will deliver on your business agenda. What are their traits and mindsets – and are there any that are lacking that would be helpful in the future?

As well as looking within your organization, cast the net wider for models of leadership that drive best-in-class business performance. The Korn Ferry holistic and researched Enterprise Leadership Framework, for example, outlines five mindsets and four capabilities that leaders need to simultaneously perform and transform.

2 Identify highest potentials

For organizations seeking to strengthen their leadership pipeline, it is important to zero in on how to quickly and accurately identify people with the potential to fit the leadership profile that you’ve identified.

How can you do this successfully? We know that solely relying on performance or gut instinct can lead to many talented people being overlooked. Having objective assessment criteria is essential for identifying high performers who lack the traditional network at the top and would otherwise be left out of the talent pipeline.

However, we also know that when it comes to identifying high potential talent for top leadership roles, organizations sometimes have a "knowing versus doing" gap. They know they need to be objective, but they fall back on habits like relying on performance or manager opinions. And this may result in a less plentiful supply of leaders in your pipeline for critical executive roles.

3 Consider readiness vs potential

When assessing people for suitability as future C-Suite candidates, it’s important to distinguish between determining potential—those who have the key capabilities or attributes, but who may need additional experiences—and evaluating readiness—those who could step into the C-Suite role immediately if necessary.

People who are more than two years away from a C-Suite appointment should be assessed for their potential to grow into the job. Given sufficient time, those with significant potential, who are viewed as serious contenders, can build needed skills and experiences in conjunction with a development program tailored to building and augmenting the areas that need strengthening.

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4 Design inside-out and outside-in leader development opportunities

Success comes from both “inside-out” and “outside-in” development. Inside-out focuses on a person’s traits and motivations, helping people clarify their goals and gain insight into how their beliefs and values drive their behaviors. Outside-in centers on organizational goals, which help current and future leaders better understand how their organization defines success and how others perceive them.

Connect these two perspectives to help people perform and transform at personal, interpersonal and organizational levels.

5 Identify credibility-building roles

Every company has “make or break” positions that are seen as key milestones. The challenges faced, achievements made, and lessons learned in these roles can earn credibility and springboard individuals forward in their career progression. Of course, the reverse can also be true. But as long as less successful individuals have the support they need to succeed in their role, this can help companies weed out those that might not be suited to the top jobs.

Once these crucial roles are identified, consider how they’re reached. Are there accessible pathways throughout your organizational structure, and if not, then what needs to change?

Women, for example, are more likely to be siloed into “traditional” female roles, such as marketing and HR, missing out on the types of positions that give a broader perspective, such as profit and loss (P&L) and operational roles. How can you identify and ensure all types of potential leaders get access to the skills they would need for the C-suite path?

“Giving people exposure and experience outside of their comfort zones provides a broader perspective and helps these future leaders stretch,” says Stevenson. “Ensuring a clearly defined pathway to these credibility-building roles is essential to building a more inclusive and diverse leadership pipeline.”

6 Strengthen your feedback loop

After an assessment or any performance review, ensure your high potentials and future leaders know where they stand, what’s valued about them, what they’re working on, and that they are working towards a shared purpose. Communicate promotion pathways and follow through with challenge assignments, skill development and leadership training.

“Getting the feedback loop right minimizes the flight risk for top talent and ensures these future leaders are highly engaged and motivated,” says Stevenson. “Communication and transparency are paramount. CHROs play a vital role here, setting the tone for openness and proactively ensuring the feedback loop is working.”

7 Integrate leader development into your company culture

As executives and managers bounce from one urgent issue to the next, there’s little time to think about how and when succession gaps will appear.

To address this challenge, weave leader development into your company culture. CHRO and C-suite leaders can make this a company priority by setting aside time in daily or weekly schedules. This cascades down, energizing people who want to be part of this culture and reducing the risk of talent loss.

Our Line of Sight research shows that people who understand where the business is going, and their role in moving it forward, are naturally more energized and engaged. Adding a mentor to help them develop and signpost the way forwards and upwards will enable them to imagine their future at the company and make them more likely to stay in the long-term. All ensuring you have C-Suite potential embedded at every level of your organization.

Get help developing your C-Suite pipeline

Strong leaders can be one of the key differentiators for your organization—or a limiting factor when in short supply. Don’t wait until there’s a succession crisis. Prepare your organization’s future leaders with succession planning, leadership assessments, and executive coaching services with Korn Ferry.