By Celine Aubert. Image by: Anna Tukhfatullina.
As a child I loved the outdoors. I had an innate fascination with nature, the environment, the plant and animal kingdoms. Our garden became my sanctuary where I would spend hours planting seeds, burying and watering them, and watching over them for little signs of growth. As soon as I noticed tiny green leaves beginning to sprout — I felt an immense sense of pleasure. Seedlings were precious to me, and I realised how the specific conditions around them influenced their growth.
I remember struggling to understand why the result was not as predictable as I believed it should be. Then my grandmother taught me what each plant needed. I learnt how to watch out for the perils that could influence a plant’s growth — like the weeds, creepers and crawlers threatening its ability to thrive.
To this day, I feel there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of watching a plant grow to maturity and evolve through the cycle of the seasons. Blossoming plants have the gift of lighting up a space, creating a magical experience for all.
As director at Covalen, (formerly Cpl Integrated Services), and prior to that as L&D Director — I’m a firm believer in the fundamental elements of rooting, growing and nurturing leaders. In recent decades and today, there’s a lot of talk about leadership development and the conditions that influence its success.
Beyond the strategic approach of succession planning and leadership development programmes — we see talent flourishing or disintegrating within organisations as time passes.
I’ve watched the career paths of people around me and their development journeys, and I’ve realised that the magic of blossoming relies on a very delicate balancing act.
The foundation of balance in nurturing leaders
In preparing the next wave of leaders, I see the foundation of balance rooted in the creation of great relationships, and specifically, in developing trust. It’s about understanding the person and continually building on that knowledge. By holding onto the urge to dive into nurture mode, our approach is balanced, and nurturing is the journey.
Here are some of my observations on cultivating great leaders:
Know your talent
Before the nurturing journey begins, it’s vital to explore and discover the person, and rather than one-off conversations or scheduled performance reviews — it’s a continuous cycle of discovery. Each one of us is made up of many layers and to make things even more complex, we’re constantly evolving. So, our motivations, insecurities and perceptions will potentially change. Experiences continuously mould us, shaping the essence of who we become.
Time is an investment, so let’s take the time to know our talent. What do we begin to explore?
Their professional profile – skills, strengths, skill gaps.
Their motivations – what make them tick, what’s important to them, and how it aligns with the organisation’s purpose.
Their fears and insecurities – what could hold them back.
It’s important to listen to their stories and understand the baggage they carry with tact and sensitivity.
Recognise individual patterns
People learn and develop in different ways, so nurturing must be personalised to impact growth, or else it can discourage the individual from taking responsibility, initiative, or thriving. Everyone is knitted differently, and knowing these intricate individual patterns is key to unlocking development potential.
Build strong interpersonal skills
The interpersonal skills of leaders are essential to people development. Leaders with strong interpersonal skills can adapt to individual style and need, and choose a specific approach or behaviour that gets the best out of the individual.
Develop an open and trusting relationship
Open communication and genuine interest in the individual helps form an in-depth understanding of how they work. It assists in creating a trust environment which is ideal for prosperous learning.
Elevate structured learning to nurturing:
Depending on the size of an organisation and its resources, a company might have a structured leadership programme in-house or externally, or more sporadic training focused on specific skill sets. Leadership development programmes take different forms in different organisations. They offer great advantages for companies to nurture their talent. Some programmes provide opportunities for independent talent development (away from the manager). However, to truly nurture and retain talent, the design of structured learning shouldn’t remove development accountability from the individual, or manager.
The transfer of learning from a structured learning programme needs the involvement and support of the manager who displays the knowledge and trust to bring skills to life. This means providing safe, timely opportunities for the individual to demonstrate their newly-honed skills, with the protection and oversight of the manager.
Fluid, organic learning is growing in popularity because it encourages initiative, creativity and opportunities for exploration. Organic learning, as part of a company’s culture, is something to cherish as it supports a learning culture for all. Here, learning comes from various sources and places accountability with both individual and leader. The method and approach of organic learning is tailored to individual and organisational needs. This might seem easy or idealistic, however, the approach requires the most conscious effort, commitment and dedication, hence, it can be difficult to maintain or control.
Learning approach and common vision
In finding the right balance to successfully approach leadership nurturing — the company size, organisational culture and individual’s circumstances need to be considered. Essentially, this is down to the leader. It’s crucial to know the destination point you have in mind for the individual, as well as considering what the outcome looks like. In other words, what does blossoming mean to the person being developed?
Throughout the journey, it’s important for both parties to have a clear and common vision with defined and achievable goals. This will help to track progress and maintain focus on the individual, enabling activities to be adapted to achieve personalised goals.
And one thing I’ve noticed — the vision might evolve based on the individual’s personal journey, the learnings outcome or company direction, therefore — the vision should remain malleable. Relationship nurturing will encourage open communication allowing for the learning approach to be adjusted as needed.
So, how far do we go towards empowering leaders?
If we agree that cultivating plants is an art that requires skills, knowledge and effort, I find it inspiring to see a delicate flower growing in the middle of the harshest environment. Purely incidental with nature’s touch of “laissez-faire”?
The term and practice of “laissez-faire” also applies to management in reference to the management style of allowing individuals the freedom of choice and action. And yes, in my career I’ve seen laissez-faire managers helping people flourish. Was it just by chance, or in fact a perfect ground for growth?
The laissez faire attitude of these managers helped a select few to grow and develop, but also resulted in loss of talent over time.
Either it stems from the belief that it helps people grow, or it happens by a default management style. However, depending on the individual’s perception of “nurturing”, laissez-faire management can lead to feelings of empowerment, or feelings of abandonment.
Adaptive leadership styles
I believe the most effective leadership style aligns with the individual’s needs and preferences, their learning potential and circumstances — to visualise the best possible learning outcome.
The intention of a leader to create an environment that fosters empowerment is bigger than laissez-faire style. It’s defined as inspiring a sense of control within the individual, at the same time, building on the strength of the leader’s expertise and confidence. The leader makes a conscious decision about what, where and when they contribute, while nurturing the growth of the individual and adding real value to the business.
Empowerment is stimulated by support, and a sense of freedom is instilled by the safety net of the leader who’s willing to take responsibility for the outcome.
Tough nurturing (Tough love)
Nurturing is associated with care, and sometimes care requires a level of toughness. It’s important to maintain high standards, while demonstrating respect and empathy throughout difficult conversations. I believe that when a trust environment has been built, it enables honest feedback whatever the message.
Moreover, you must plan and allow for failure because it’s an integral part of the growth process.
Leadership development calls for emotional collaboration and trust between individuals. Without this trusted bond it’ll be a difficult road to success. It demands a strong commitment from leaders to develop and retain talent, allowing new leaders to step forward and flourish.
By nurturing the individual and building on their strengths, the organisation becomes stronger. The team’s capacity and the organisational culture as a whole benefits from an increased sense of trust, collaboration and commitment — allowing the organisation to become more innovative and agile.
Nurturing talent is a dynamic balancing act that requires intent, personal commitment, thoughtful leadership, and time.