How to Start Developing a Leadership Talent Pool - Senior Executive

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Senior Executive Think Tank Learning and Development (L&D) Expert Forecasts 9 min

Developing a Leadership Talent Pool Is Top Priority: Here’s How to Get Started

Recruiting high-potential talent and creating leadership development opportunities drive the future success of your organization.

by Phil Rhodes on January 19, 2024

Illustrated headshot of Phil Rhodes on a green background

Phil Rhodes

Head of Learning & Leadership Development at WM (formerly Waste Management)


  • As baby boomers reach retirement age, many companies are left without the right leadership talent to step into their roles.

  • Companies must identify their hiring challenges and develop strategies to recruit a diverse talent pool.

  • Engage your internal talent, create a sense of belonging, and design professional development programs to cultivate your company’s future leaders.

A dramatic shift in the profile of leaders is occurring across organizations. Specifically, leaders at many companies are predominantly baby boomers, and the pool of developing leadership talent ready to replace them is often lacking. 

By 2030, the youngest of the baby boomer generation will have hit retirement age, posing challenges for business continuity. At WM, we identified a few of those challenges and their solutions, which will impact our business both now and in the future:

  • Knowledge and Experience Drain: Baby boomers often accumulate extensive knowledge and experience over their decades-long careers. Creating mentorship and coaching programs, documenting best practices, and facilitating cross-generational knowledge-sharing sessions are critical to business continuity.
  • Leadership Vacuum: Avoiding a leadership vacuum requires implementing various learning paths such as foundational leadership skills and high-potential leadership programs to develop internal employees into future leaders.
  • Succession Planning: Effective succession planning is vital to prepare for the retirement wave. Providing mentorship and talent development opportunities and identifying high-potential employees to partake in leadership programs leads the way to creating a robust talent pipeline.
  • Technology Adaptation: A focus on enhanced digital literacy is needed to prepare the next generation of leaders. Ensuring that a workforce, especially new leaders, are adept at leveraging and adapting to emerging technologies is crucial for maintaining operational efficiency. 
  • Employee Engagement and Retention: Retaining top talent and maintaining a positive organizational culture is imperative and requires a focus on employee engagement, career development, and retention strategies.

Now, let’s switch gears to discuss how you can identify your company’s pain points and develop a leadership talent pool for your organization. 

1. Identify your organization’s hiring challenges. 

The competitive landscape across industries and the shift in demographics have made the need to invest in internal and external leadership talent a business priority over the past few years. To better understand the business impact and improve your talent acquisition processes, here are a few ways to pinpoint your company’s challenges:

Employee Feedback: Conduct focus groups with new hires. Their experiences can provide valuable insights into the hiring process and reveal any pain points that they encounter.

Exit Interviews: Conduct exit interviews to understand reasons for departure. This can shed light on issues in the hiring or onboarding processes.

Industry Benchmarks: Research industry benchmarks and best practices. Compare your hiring metrics to those of similar companies in your industry. Identify areas where you may be lagging or excelling.

Candidate Feedback: Gather feedback from candidates who have gone through your hiring process. Pay attention to their experiences, whether positive or negative, to identify areas for improvement.

Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives: Examine your efforts in promoting diversity and inclusion. If you are facing challenges in hiring a diverse workforce, it is important to address any issues and create a more inclusive hiring environment.

Market Trends: Stay informed on the latest trends and changes in your industry. This includes shifts in candidate expectations, emerging skills, or new technologies. Being aware of these trends can help you adapt your hiring strategies.

Collaboration with Hiring Managers: Work closely with hiring managers to understand their perspectives on challenges they face during the recruitment process. Their input can be invaluable in identifying specific pain points. 

2. Develop your recruitment strategy to attract diverse candidates.

We knew we wanted to attract more diverse candidates to help us develop a larger pool of leadership talent at WM. We launched the Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council in 2020 to ensure that our efforts to help build a culture of belonging are sustainable and support our business success. The council works to provide resources and connect employees around shared interests and backgrounds. 

Our focus is on representing the communities we serve, and we are working to increase female representation, from frontline to leadership roles, and people of color representation in manager roles and above.

While your diversity hiring goals may be different than ours, here are a few steps to improve your recruitment efforts: 

Look at Your Job Descriptions: Make sure they are inclusive and free from biased language. Highlight your commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Use Diverse Hiring Panels: Ensure that your hiring panels are made up of diverse individuals. Candidates are likely to feel more comfortable and encouraged when they see diversity among those conducting interviews.

Create Inclusive Policies: Develop and communicate policies that promote diversity and inclusion within your organization.

Network in Diverse Communities: Attend events and engage with communities that are diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, and other dimensions. This can help build relationships and make your organization more visible to a broader audience.

To expand our talent pool as our business grew, we updated all frontline leadership job descriptions to remove college education and focus on leadership skills and experiences. This shift in job descriptions was accompanied by the implementation of diverse hiring panels for these critical frontline leadership roles. 

Representation of diverse leaders in the panel interviews allowed candidates time to ask specific questions they may have about joining WM and contributed to an increase in acceptance rates of job offers by diverse candidates. By the end of 2023, our professional development program graduates were 19.2% female, 49.8% people of color, and 50.2% from outside of our industry. 

3. Invest in support for your internal talent. 

Our new talent management platform, launched in 2022, provides more visibility into existing WM talent, enabling internal hiring and mobility across the company. We also launched our first “Voice of the Employee” survey to get feedback from colleagues about their experiences working at WM. 

We implemented new initiatives in response to insights shared by employees. We’ve added more employee resource groups (ERGs), new learning and development offerings, and a focus on belonging. A few of our ERGs include Unified, our multicultural group; Prism, our LGBTQ+ group; Women’s Empowerment Network (WEN), our women’s professional group; and Valor, our veterans and military families group.

Raising awareness around these groups is key to recruiting membership. Our senior leadership team talked about them during town halls; site leaders held meetings, and we included information in company-wide emails.

Each month we host a variety of events such as Employee Spotlights and Culture Connectors to engage our employees, share perspectives on diversity in our workforce, and learn more about WM team members. We’re also committed to improving our employee recognition programs and invested in a new platform to enable meaningful and regular recognition. 

4. Design a professional development program to cultivate leaders.

As Vince Lombardi has been credited with saying, “Great Leaders are not born, they’re made.”

To develop our future leaders, we designed intense management development programs for our frontline leaders. We created experiential learning cohort programs that range from six months to two years and are based on technical competencies within each line of business.

New hires are assigned a mentor and train at a specific site for the length of their program, which includes hands-on, role-play, virtual, and in-person learning activities on topics all relevant to successfully running and driving their business.

Our newest frontline leadership program is the Route Manager Trainee (RMT), which impacts a huge part of our business. Among graduates who were placed into roles in 2023, we had an 8% turnover, a significant decrease from the 50% turnover rate of new leaders placed into roles who didn’t go through the program in previous years.  

Launching this year is the next iteration, called the Professional Development Program. Participants remain in their respective technical training programs and participate together in core program content to complement and expand their line-of-business management training. The goal is to continue molding our future WM leaders while expanding the network of their peer group.

Designing this type of professional development program to cultivate leaders involves a thoughtful and comprehensive approach. Here’s how you can get started:

Clear Objectives: Define clear and measurable objectives for the program, and ensure alignment with organizational goals and development needs.

Target Audience: Identify the target audience for the development program, and consider the career levels and roles of participants to tailor the content accordingly.

Curriculum: Develop a curriculum that covers your key leadership competencies.

Mentorship and Coaching: Pair emerging leaders with experienced mentors to facilitate skill transfer and career development.

Hands-On Experiences: Provide opportunities for practical application of leadership skills, and encourage participants to take on leadership roles in projects or on cross-functional teams.

Feedback Mechanism: Establish a feedback system to gather insights on participants’ progress. Regularly assess the effectiveness of the program and make necessary adjustments.

Networking Opportunities: Create forums for leaders to connect and share experiences. We are testing a learning experience platform (LXP), but Microsoft Teams can be set up as a social learning component.

Learning Culture: Instill a culture of continuous learning within the organization, and encourage leaders to pursue ongoing development opportunities beyond the formal program.

Assessment and Recognition: Implement assessments to measure the impact of the program. Recognize and reward participants who demonstrate growth and exceptional leadership qualities.

Flexibility and Adaptability: Design the program to be flexible and adaptable to changing organizational needs. Remember to update content and activities based on feedback and evolving leadership requirements.

Evaluation and Iteration: Regularly evaluate the overall effectiveness of the program, and use feedback to make continuous improvements and iterations for future cohorts.

A successful leadership development strategy is a dynamic and evolving initiative that responds to the changing needs of both the organization and its leaders.

Build tomorrow’s leadership team today.

Creating leadership development programs is not just about shaping current leaders; it is an investment in the future success of your organization. As an L&D leader, you have a crucial role in collaborating with your executive team to design and implement these programs. This collaboration helps align leadership development with the overall business strategy.

For us at WM, developing future leaders is not just a one-time effort; it is an ongoing process. Our long-term vision is that every frontline leader goes through our professional development programs — it is the only way to develop a talent pool to replace retiring leaders.

Developing a leadership talent pool is a strategic imperative for organizations aiming to thrive in the ever-changing business landscape. By investing in leadership development, you can secure your future success, ensure a smooth leadership transition, and foster a culture of continuous improvement and innovation.

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