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Cultivating Internal Leadership: Developing the Talent Pipeline to Build Organizational Resilience

As organizations face ever-increasing disruption and changing demands in today's dynamic business environment, building internal leadership resilience has become a strategic imperative. Developing a robust internal pipeline of future organizational leaders is key to maintaining competitiveness and sustainability over the long term. However, traditional approaches to managerial succession and career progression often fail to adequately prepare internal talent for the complexity of modern leadership roles.

Today we will explore how organizational leaders can reimagine their managerial pipelines by implementing holistic talent development strategies focused on continuously nurturing internal talent through lifelong learning and experience. By cultivating a culture of growth and development, leaders can better equip internal candidates to effectively navigate uncertainty and drive organizational adaptation.

The Need for Internal Talent Development

Rapid globalization, technological disruption, shifting customer demands, and other forces have significantly increased the complexity and rate of change facing modern organizations (Domegan & Fleischer, 2012). Where leadership roles were once stable and predictable, today's leaders must navigate ambiguity and uncertainty on an ongoing basis (Johansen, 2017). To effectively steer through disruption, organizations require individuals capable of leading adaptation, empowering innovation, and building the strategic agility necessary to respond to emerging challenges (Uhl-Bien et al., 2007).

Traditional succession planning methods focused primarily on filling roles often fail to develop such competencies within existing talent pools (Charan et al., 2011). Selecting individuals based primarily on past performance provides no guarantee they will possess the adaptive mindsets and capabilities needed in an ambiguous world (DeRue & Myers, 2014). Both leadership theory and practice increasingly recognize that developing strategic leadership acumen requires dedicated, ongoing development focused on gaining diverse experiences and strengthening learning aptitudes over the long term (Day, 2000; Day et al., 2014).

Relying heavily on external hires also threatens organizational resilience by limiting internal knowledge networks critical for navigating complexity (Finkelstein et al., 2009). Building leadership pipelines from within allows deep institutional knowledge to be retained and leveraged throughout periods of change. Talent development thus becomes a strategic necessity to cultivate internal candidates equipped with the skills, perspectives, and mental agility necessary to steward continuous organizational adaptation over the long term.

Identifying High-Potential Employees

The first step in reimagining a managerial pipeline involves identifying internal talent demonstrating high leadership potential (Charan et al., 2011). Traditional methods like only considering those already in management often overlook diverse candidates who may possess innate strengths with further development. Leaders should implement holistic assessments centered on evaluating an individual's:

  • Cognitive abilities like continuous learning orientation, complex problem-solving, and strategic thinking

  • Emotional intelligence attributes like self-awareness, social skills, and resilience in adversity

  • Motivation and aspirations towards taking on greater responsibilities

Assessments should incorporate diverse inputs, for example:

  • Multirater 360 reviews from direct reports, peers, managers

  • Structured behavioral interviews assessing leadership competencies

  • Analysis of accomplishments and impact on key initiatives and projects

  • Evaluation of ongoing learning goals and achievements

Rather than limiting consideration to those already excelling in current roles, leaders should cast a wider net to identify internal talent from varied functions and career stages showing aptitude for future leadership (Charan et al., 2011). High-potentials should reflect the diversity of the organization and customer base.

Customized Development Plans

Once identified, high-potential employees require focused development to strengthen the skills, experiences, and mindsets necessary to transition successfully into strategic leadership roles (Day et al., 2014). Leaders must work closely with these individuals to craft customized, long-term development plans incorporating:

  • Stretch Assignments that expose candidates to new challenges and roles outside their traditional expertise, such as leading cross-functional projects or temporary roles in other business units.

  • Rotational Programs structured to sequentially build broad strategic perspective across an organization's operations over 2-3 year timeframes.

  • Coaching and Mentorship from experienced organizational leaders to support reflection and application of learning from these developmental experiences.

  • Action Learning Projects centered on analyzing and addressing actual organizational issues to strengthen practical problem-solving capabilities.

  • External Education in relevant leadership and industry topics through programs like executive MBA courses delivered both face-to-face and virtually.

Most importantly, candidates should drive the creation of their plans aligned with personal strengths and career aspirations, with leadership oversight to ensure strategic alignment. Regular review and adjustment supports continuous improvement and changed priorities over time.

Exposure to Strategic Challenges

While technical skills remain important, developing strategic leadership necessitates exposure to the ambiguous, real-world challenges executives routinely navigate (Day, 2000). Organizational leaders must fully integrate high-potentials into strategic discussions and decision-making to gain vital perspective:

  • Include participation in executive meetings where candidates directly observe strategic dilemmas and deliberations.

  • Appoint representatives to executive-level task forces addressing complex organizational issues like technology adoption, mergers/acquisitions, or market disruption.

  • Assign special strategic projects that require synthesizing information from across departments and considering impacts on stakeholders.

For example, at industrial manufacturer Honeywell, high-potential directors complete 1-2 year executive shadows, attending all leadership team meetings to gain first-hand experience in strategic problem-solving. Formative exposure to high-stakes decision environments strengthens the strategic acumen and systems-thinking critical for future organizational leadership roles.

Cultivating a Learning Culture

Sustaining internal talent development long-term requires fostering an organizational culture where continuous learning is valued for all employees (McCall, 2004). Leaders must model a growth mindset, championing the links between developing new capabilities and long-term adaptation. Formal talent programs must complement an environment that encourages:

  • Regular career conversations focused on aspirations, strengths, development areas

  • Opportunities to lead cross-functional initiatives and special projects

  • Internal and external networking to build diverse professional relationships

  • Flexible work arrangements that accommodate further education/training

  • Recognition and rewards for ongoing skills acquisition over pure technical expertise

For example, at global advertising agency R/GA, all employees complete a self-driven "MBA" for ongoing education. Leaders celebrate learning achievements to inspire colleagues. By championing growth at all levels, organizational cultures strengthen internal talent retention and motivation to develop future leadership.


In today's ambiguous business environment, traditional approaches to managerial succession planning no longer suffice. To build strategic resilience from within, organizations must reimagine their talent pipelines through holistic, long-term development of internal high-potentials. Developing future leaders necessitates dedicated strategies, alongside culture change, to nurture the adaptive mindsets and diverse experiences necessary to effectively navigate disruption. With ongoing commitment to cultivating strengths, championing growth, and fully integrating internal talent into strategic leadership exposure, organizations can substantially strengthen internal capabilities for continuous adaptation through times of uncertainty. Reimagining the managerial pipeline in this manner represents a strategic imperative for building sustainable organizational resilience from the inside out.


  • Charan, R., Drotter, S., & Noel, J. (2011). The leadership pipeline: How to build the leadership powered company. John Wiley & Sons.

  • Day, D. V. (2000). Leadership development: A review in context. Leadership Quarterly, 11(4), 581-613.

  • Day, D. V., Fleenor, J. W., Atwater, L. E., Sturm, R. E., & McKee, R. A. (2014). Advances in leader and leadership development: A review of 25years of research and theory. The Leadership Quarterly, 25(1), 63-82.

  • DeRue, D. S., & Myers, C. G. (2014). Leadership development: A review and agenda for future research. In D. V. Day (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of leadership and organizations (pp. 832–855). Oxford University Press.

  • Domegan, C., & Fleischer, G. (2012). Complexity leadership and change in a high velocity environment. Journal of Organizational Change Management.

  • Finkelstein, S., Hambrick, D. C., & Cannella, A. A. (2009). Strategic leadership: Theory and research on executives, top management teams, and boards. Oxford University Press.

  • Johansen, B. (2017). The new leadership literacies: Thriving in a future of extreme disruption and distributed everything. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

  • McCall, M. W. (2004). Leadership development through experience. Academy of Management Perspectives, 18(3), 127-130.

  • Uhl-Bien, M., Marion, R., & McKelvey, B. (2007). Complexity leadership theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era. The Leadership Quarterly, 18(4), 298-318.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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