Optimal flow: Building open organizations where leaders can emerge

To create innovative and engaged organizations, you'll need to set the conditions for open leaders to thrive. This checklist can help.
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Previously in this series on open organizations and talent management, I’ve discussed the importance of cultivating an organization’s open leaders by getting out of their way and letting them flourish. As someone invested in developing your organization’s next generation of leaders, know that your goal here isn’t to be entirely “hands off”; instead, your goal is to spend time building the systems and processes that help new leaders find their footing and unleash their passion. The truth is that leadership talent rarely develops on its own.

Building these systems and processes is critical during your open organization’s hybrid phase. In this article, I’ll discuss what that means and why it’s so important. I’ll also offer a few crucial questions you should be asking yourself as you nurture talent during this phase of your organization’s transformation.

A breeding ground for leadership talent

Conventional organizations don’t become open organizations over night. They evolve into open organizations. That means your organization will never be entirely closed or entirely open; it will exist in a state of transition. This is the organization’s hybrid state.

As I’ve said before, during an organization’s hybrid phase, “you’ll encounter periods in which traditional and open practices operate side by side, even mixed and shuffled.” This can be a challenge. But it can also be an opportunity.

This hybrid situation is especially critical, because it’s the time when your vision and approach to leadership talent development determine the success of the transformation to a more open organization (and the speed at which you achieve that success). It’s the breeding ground of your new organizational culture.

So your focus on vision and strategy is key here. You’ll need to create the principles and preconditions for a psychologically safe environment, one with permeable boundaries that allow talent to flow.

Here are some steps you might take to do this.

Think flow

First of all, get to know your own purpose, strengths, and passions. And do this not just “in your head,” with your heart and gut intelligence, too. In this way, leaders can explore their own compass and intuitive power from within. What do I intrinsically like and dislike?

You’ll need to create the principles and preconditions for a psychologically safe environment, one with permeable boundaries that allow talent to flow.

Then imagine ways you can ensure a successful flow of talent throughout your organization. Consider various leadership development stages and map those stages to the areas and positions inside your organization where leadership talent might develop step by step.

Ultimately, to create opportunities for your emerging leaders, you’re trying to connect knowledge from various areas—people, market, business, financial control and the “me” in that field. So if you are able to put them in these positions or in projects where these areas interconnect, you’ll achieve optimal flow.

This will involve some key questions like:

  • How will leadership talent contribute to the success of the organization?
  • What kind of balance between managers and leaders are you aiming for?
  • Does your organization currently have enough leadership coaches and mentors available to help?

Don’t forget to tap mentors outside your pool of existing managers. Managers tend to train other managers; leaders tend to train other leaders. By “leaders,” I mean those employees who assume inclusiveness and trust, who recognize the qualities of colleagues that make them so successful, and who share responsibility. Leaders support responsible people in making and implementing decisions. Leaders want to make themselves superfluous.

The safety to learn

When thinking about talent development, know that you will need to provide a safe environment for emerging leaders to practice and learn. This way, talented employees can gain crucial experience. Failure is a great learning tool and a powerful part of this experience. But to be able to fail, people must feel there is a safety net—that is, that they can fail safely.

As you work through your organization’s hybrid period, ask:

  • What resources do you need to create a safe environment for growth
  • How will you know that you’ve created that environment?

Working through tensions

You’ll experience tension during your organization’s hybrid period, as various parts of the organization (and various stakeholders) embrace change at their own paces. While some employees—especially your emerging leaders—will be pushing forward, others in the organization may not yet be ready for change that rapidly. As a result, you might observe insufficient willingness to invest in talent, in preparation, and in the guidance these emerging leaders need.

So ask yourself:

  • Is the organization prepared to invest in up-and-coming leaders?
  • Do you actually know how talented employees are prepared for their futures in your organization?

The space to practice

Leadership talent must be given time and space to practice; this will lay the foundation for their success. For example, you might offer highly skilled and motivated employees an opportunity to present to the board, or even to a group of colleagues. Or you can give potential leaders a consulting role on the board. Have them prepare and chair important meetings. Have them research and prepare reports.

Nothing is more important than teaching them to dig deeper into a subject they’re responsible for.

Nothing is more important than teaching them to dig deeper into a subject they’re responsible for. You can also think about giving them a significant project or task that will introduce them to some aspects of leadership and collaboration.

So ask yourself:

  • How can I create opportunities for my emerging leaders to gain visibility?
  • How can I better understand what my younger leaders care about?

Model what you seek

Leadership talent develops through collaboration. So make sure you’re available as a coach and mentor for emerging leaders in your organization. This is the best way to see precisely what future leaders are capable of and learn whether they have the capacity to stretch even further. Don’t limit the support you offer them to some training and perhaps a bit of external coaching. Offer these yourself. Teach your leadership talent how they can begin to stand on their own—and, yes, to fail on their own, too. Share the experiences that have shaped you as a leader, and offer your own insights into the aspects of the business you find most compelling. In short, help them gain the skills they need to create their own thriving teams, even when that means making their own presence less important or even unnecessary. A passionate and committed leader takes the time to do this. Great leaders create other leaders!

So ask yourself:

  • What exemplary behavior can I provide so that emerging leaders might learn from it?
  • How can I be available to answer questions openly at all levels of awareness for the talent?
  • What insights can I offer that are essential for further development?
  • How can I personally support leaders as they develop their skills?
  • What does the talent need from me to develop further?

In my next article, I’ll address leadership talent in various locations in your organization—at the top, in the middle management, and on the ground.

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Jos Groen, The Netherlands / Transformational leader towards Open Organizations
Jos is a Transformational leader and coach, passionate about the open culture and open organization approach. Jos´s ambition is for transformative organizations to be open organizations, and his mission is to give the organization back to its employees.


agree with you and new talent should have liberty to make mistakes. They can learn and grow from their mistakes.

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