Do you have enough leaders to fuel your organization’s future growth? The answer may rest with a leader who’s vigorously teaming with colleagues to reinvent a proven leadership approach that just might be what you’re looking for.
Tara VanderSande, Staff Development Director at Willow Creek Community Church, has been instrumental in the development of 500 leaders and staff who have helped propel the health and effectiveness of Willow Creeks’ culture to new, sustainable heights.
When I asked her to describe Willow Creek’s leadership development strategy, in our recent one-on-one interview, she unpacked the unfolding strategy designed to create seamless, leadership continuity at Willow now and for years to come:
“Over the past nine years at Willow Creek, we’ve made a significant shift from leadership development to leadership readiness. At the beginning of our development process, we focused on preparing a second-in-command to take over the leadership function if and when the primary leader transitioned from the role. This is general role succession planning.
“A couple years ago, several key leaders transitioned in the same season. We were thrilled to have the next tier of emerging leaders ready for this upcoming leadership assignment. After patting ourselves on the back for a job well done, we received a call that no HR professional wants to receive:
One of our more senior leaders was unexpectedly leaving the staff–and the successor we had identified wasn’t quite ready for this career jump in leadership influence.
“At that moment, we realized that our work was not done. Actually, it was just beginning. That’s when we realized we needed a new strategy.
“We shifted our leadership focus from promotion to pipeline. We had been focused on developing an individual for a succession. Today, we are now focused on a group of people for developing their leadership readiness over a period of time.
““The strategic upside is that we now have a number of individuals from a pool of emerging leaders that could be successors in a key role. We have 35 key roles that always need to be filled with fantastic leaders. We need to have more than one person ready in case of a transition; we didn’t want to rely on one individual for one specific role.”
I then asked Tara, “So how did Willow Creek begin to identify individuals for development?
“We know that leadership readiness is fluid and dynamic. Our ministries and our people are growing and we want to be attentive to these shifts so we can steward our people in all phases of development.
“One trap of leadership development is putting people in a specific category, or giving them a label, while never being aware of the shifts in the person’s needs whether that’s educational, or experience, let alone the decline or growth of a ministry.
“So we engage our senior leaders in identifying high-potential leaders on a biannual basis. We calibrate that assessment based on long-term performance and how a person achieved results over time, as well as learning agility: ‘the ability and willingness to learn from experience and then apply that learning to perform successfully in a new situation.’
“It’s important to realize that learning agility doesn’t mean, ‘I think this person will be great in five years,’ but rather, ‘Will this person have the capacity, the horsepower, and the desire to perform in some potentially pretty tough and challenging situations?”
Will this person have the capacity and the desire to perform in some potentially tough and challenging situations?”
Mindful of the three-step strategy, above, Tara can step back and give thanks for both the process and the outcome.
“I truly believe God has entrusted us with his most precious resource, his people. As the staff development director, I am a steward of God’s talent. The way we hire, develop and deploy our staff matters to God.
“God designed each person with a unique mix of gifts, passions and skills. Cultivating those gifts and passions with strategic and meaningful work experience is our investment into His kingdom.”
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