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From Technical Expertise to Strategic Mastery: Progressing Through the Leadership Pipeline

Leadership ranks as one of today’s foremost challenges. Every organization, regardless of size, must tackle this issue. Typically, a leadership crisis reflects a systemic failure within the company rather than just the shortcomings of an individual. A critical element of leadership culture involves the process of development and succession.

The four steps, or transitions, in Leadership Pipeline mark significant milestones in a leader’s career. Understanding these transitions, along with the challenges they present, is crucial for organizations aiming to establish a solid leadership culture. It also equips the organization to effectively manage changes and challenges in the business landscape.


Each stage is designed to help leaders develop the skills needed for the next role, ultimately preparing them to take charge of the organization.

Step 1: Managing self to managing others

The initial phase targets employees who have minimal leadership experience. These individuals typically possess strong technical and professional capabilities yet may lack advanced interpersonal skills crucial for leadership roles.

Once these employees become proficient individual contributors and start showing an ability to work collaboratively, they often receive additional responsibilities. Successful management of these duties, along with adherence to company values, typically leads to promotion to first-line managers.

The transition may appear straightforward but can be surprisingly challenging. The shift required at this stage is from a self-centered approach to appreciating the importance of leadership and teamwork. While first-level managers continue to handle individual tasks, they must begin transitioning their mindset towards managing others instead of just themselves. High performers, in particular, may resist changing the behaviors that initially brought them success. Consequently, many transition to managerial roles without a real shift in behavior or values, essentially becoming managers in title only.

The most challenging aspect of Step 1 is the change in values. Managers must learn to value and prioritize their managerial duties, understanding that these responsibilities are essential to their success and not just tasks to be tolerated. Assessing changes in values is more complex than observing changes in skills or time management. True value change requires reinforcement from upper management and success in their new roles to cement the new values.

Step 2: Managing others to leading managers

The second step in the Leadership Pipeline is critically neglected by many organizations, despite its importance in building the company’s management foundation. In this role, managers are responsible for selecting and developing future leaders, a task that forms the core of an organization’s leadership capabilities.

The primary focus at this stage is on the skills necessary for evaluating and selecting candidates for first-level managerial roles, providing them with the necessary support and guidance, and monitoring their development. Essentially, first-level managers transition to becoming mentors in the second step, which is pivotal for the leadership pipeline to function effectively.

Despite its importance, few companies adequately address this step in their training programs. At this stage, managers must shift entirely from individual tasks to managing only. They need to master key skills such as selecting individuals, delegating leadership tasks, tracking progress, and offering coaching. Moreover, managers at this level must broaden their perspective to include broader strategic issues affecting the business.

A significant issue is that managers promoted directly to managing other managers without properly transitioning through Step One can clog the leadership pipeline. They may continue to hold first-line managers accountable for technical rather than managerial tasks and instill inappropriate values in their subordinates. Managers in this role must also identify and address any resistance to managerial roles among first-line managers, ensuring that those who prefer individual contributions over leadership are reassigned, rather than allowed to obstruct the pipeline.

Furthermore, coaching is crucial at this level but often overlooked. Many first-line managers lack formal training in management, relying instead on their superiors for on-the-job guidance. However, the ability to coach effectively is not always recognized or rewarded within organizations, leading to a deficiency in initiative and accountability among specialists and first-line managers. This oversight can significantly impact the effectiveness of the leadership development process.

Step 3: Leading managers to functional manager

Transitioning to a functional manager role involves significant changes, primarily centered around enhancing communication skills and developing a broader organizational perspective. Functional managers must excel in understanding diverse needs across the organization and adopt a “big picture” approach, which is crucial for crafting long-term strategic plans.

“Managerial maturity” is a key attribute for functional managers. This maturity is characterized by the ability to formulate strategies that outperform competitors, thus providing the organization with a sustainable competitive edge. Functional managers must look beyond immediate challenges to devise long-term strategies that improve their function’s performance relative to the competition.

The role requires navigating complex communication channels, as functional managers must interact through multiple layers of management. Skills in team collaboration with other functional managers and strategic resource allocation are essential. Additionally, these managers must integrate their function’s strategy with the broader business strategy, often necessitating participation in business-team meetings and less time spent on direct functional tasks.

Ultimately, succeeding as a functional manager demands a shift in thinking—from being a member of a function to leading it, with a focus on long-term, innovative strategies that secure a sustainable advantage for the organization. This stage challenges managers to expand their strategic thinking and operational scope, pushing them to lead their functions into future-oriented growth.

Step 4: Functional manager to business manager

In the fourth Step of their leadership development, managers face a significant shift as they transition into the role of a business manager. This stage is characterized by increased pressure and autonomy, requiring managers to possess genuine leadership qualities and an ability to perform under heightened expectations.

The development focus for business managers is on enhancing their ability to manage diverse teams effectively and inspire their members. A deep understanding of emotional intelligence is crucial, enabling managers to connect with employees on an emotional level and better understand the dynamics between different functions within the organization.

A key challenge for business managers is making strategic decisions that balance the organization’s immediate needs with long-term goals. This involves not only ensuring smooth operational functionality but also meeting financial targets that will influence future profitability.

Business managers spend much of their time reflecting on and analyzing the organization’s past, present, and future performance, moving away from direct resource allocation to more strategic considerations. They must be open to trusting and receiving feedback from functional managers across different areas, even those they are unfamiliar with personally.


The Leadership Pipeline Model is a strategic framework aimed at fostering leadership development from the early stages of an employee’s career. It emphasizes the importance of nurturing potential leaders by providing clear transitions from managing oneself to managing others and beyond.

This model facilitates the growth of internal talent, reducing the need for external recruitment and significantly enhancing the success rate of leaders within the organization. It also provides clarity about the content of leadership jobs and responsibilities of different roles thus enabling smooth and efficient collaboration and value creation in entire organization. By focusing on strategic thinking and value-based decision-making, the Leadership Pipeline Model can markedly differentiate successful companies from those that fail.

Used sources:
The Leadership Pipeline Model: Building the Next-Generation Leaders, by Martin Luenendonk

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