Give Your Aspiring Leaders a Test Drive Before Offering the Promotion

Business professionals meeting a new colleague
••• GettyImages/PhotoAlto/Laurence Mouton

The idea of leading is appealing to many individuals interested in advancing in their careers. However, the recognition that daily work life is focused exclusively on others, leaving little time for the endeavors they enjoyed as individual contributors is a deal breaker for many. In other situations, individuals suddenly thrust into the role without much context for the work burn out spectacularly, leaving a mess in their wake.  

For any individual considering stepping into a role responsible for the work of others, investing some time in trying the role on for fit will help prevent a costly career mistake. For managers accountable for identifying and promoting individuals into first-time leadership roles it is essential to minimize new leader selection mistakes.

One approach to protecting the interests of all stakeholders is for the manager to expose the aspiring leader to different aspects of the role via a series of tasks where the risk is low and the opportunity to gain leadership experience high.

Some firms have formal leadership development or apprenticeship programs, however, far too many managers are on their own to select and develop new leaders on their teams. In this situation, investing time in exposing your leadership candidate to a series of activities or projects that offer a taste of the role can help reduce the odds of a costly misfire.

5 Activities to Let Your Aspiring Leader Gain Valuable Experience Before the Promotion

1. Start small. Ask your employee to facilitate some aspect of your operations meetings. Give them the opportunity to develop the flexible portion of the agenda and ask them to coordinate with team members for meeting preparation. Put the individual in charge of managing the actual meeting and then ​ensuring that action items are completed by the responsible parties.

2. Provide some problems to solve. Offer your aspiring leader a continuous stream of process or stakeholder problems to resolve. Ideally, resolution will include working with others in the department and across functions.

3. Use job rotation to promote learning. Offer the individual a series of assignments in different areas of your function or organization. Let them start by learning the basics and then offer a series of increasingly difficult assignments within the area. Once they have shown competence and confidence for the work in one area move them to the next one.

4. Leverage projects for the learning opportunities. Assign the individual to lead a project team. Let them understand they are accountable for bringing the project to ​a successful conclusion on time, at or under budget and at the right quality level. Start with smaller, tactical initiatives and over time and based on positive results, ramp up to more strategic, cross-functional initiatives.

5. Assign the individual to a formal team-lead role. While there are different flavors of this position, it most often is accountable for the results of a group but holds no power for hiring, firing or evaluating team members. Unlike a project manager who works on a series of temporary and unique initiatives, the team lead is involved in working with, guiding and helping with operations related activities. I have used the team lead role to success in customer support, IT, marketing and sales groups.

A Manager’s Best Practices for Guiding the Leadership Test Drive Experience

  • Observe your aspiring leader regularly in a variety of settings. Be sure to provide near real-time coaching and feedback on key behaviors to eliminate or strengthen.
  • Be patient with mistakes and resist the urge to step in and fix everything that goes wrong. Encourage the individual to own up to his/her mistakes and challenge them to work with others to ensure timely and cost-effective resolution of the issues.
  • Focus on observing the individual in settings where they need to gain the trust and support of others as part of succeeding with the initiative. Cultivating an understanding of how challenging it truly is to engage with and gain the support of others is one of the most valuable lessons a person can learn in this program.
  • Meet regularly to review progress and discuss challenges. In addition to your timely feedback and coaching, it is helpful to schedule regular discussions to review progress and gauge interest or frustration level. These sessions should consist of you asking open-ended questions and listening carefully. Resist the urge to be prescriptive for specific problems and encourage the individual to propose and then follow-thru on his/her own ideas.
  • Solicit input from the other team members. Ask for input and feedback on the aspiring leader’s performance. What can he/she do better? What should she stop doing? Offer this feedback to your apprentice and ask them to take it translate the input into improvement. Consider facilitating  360-degree feedback with an anonymous survey where team members rate the performance of the individual on a number of different dimensions. Leave space for comments. Again, share the input with the aspiring leader.
  • Gauge your apprentice's ongoing interest in and commitment to developing as a leader. Eventually, you and your team member have a decision on whether to proceed to the next step: a formal management role with report-to team members, or, to revert to more of an individual contributor role. Your observation and coaching over time will tell you whether the individual is capable of taking this big step. However, you must also assess the individual’s level of interest and commitment. By now, they understand the basics of leading and guiding others. Ask:
    • Do you enjoy this role?
    • Does it challenge you?
    • Do you feel rewarded by this work?
    • Are you comfortable giving up serving as an individual contributor?
    • Are you prepared to dedicate yourself to supporting and developing others?
    • Are you comfortable navigated the challenging aspects of the role, including delivering constructive feedback?


    The above steps and suggestions are often skipped in the fast pace of business. The cost of putting the wrong person in charge of your other team members is incredibly high in terms of morale, productivity, engagement and turnover. Alternatively, shepherding the individual through some form of your informal apprenticeship program offers a number of benefits, including:

    • The individual learns what it means to get work done thru others.
    • Your team members are actively involved in the development of their next leader.
    • Your potential leader has a vote in whether the role is right or wrong.
    • You strengthen your skills as a coach and talent developer and you are doing the valuable work of actively developing the next generation of leaders in your firm.

    The Bottom Line for Now:

    First-time leader burnout or flameout is all-too-common in our organizations. With a bit of deliberate development support, you can minimize this risk and improve your odds of developing the leadership strength necessary for your firm’s success. And let’s face it, there are few tasks more important in any organization than identifying and developing capable leaders.