Companies need leaders in all areas of the organization — especially in the accounting and finance function, which the business depends on heavily for its success. Yet many businesses overlook the importance of implementing succession plans and formal leadership development programs to offer their employees a clear pathway to management roles.

Creating a leadership development program for your accounting and finance team is a way to offer them the opportunity to develop the skills they need to move up within your organization and grow in their career. These programs can generate other benefits, too, such as higher employee morale and greater team productivity, creativity and innovation. It can also help your employees to feel more connected to the business, and understand how their work adds value.

If you think your organization would benefit from creating a leadership development program, read on to learn four of the most important steps you can take to get started:

1. Define your company’s leadership needs

A good “square one” exercise is to think about any specific leadership gaps that your organization has or may soon face. For example, are any leaders looking to retire soon? And if current leaders were to leave, what attributes and characteristics would the business sorely miss?

Think, too, about the company’s short-term and long-term strategic goals. For example, if the organization is on a fast track for growth, your leadership development program should be aligned to ensure the business has the right leadership in place to meet those priorities.

Also, reflect on what leadership means to your business. What are the traits your firm values most in its leaders? Dig deep on this, and avoid reaching for vague descriptors such as “go-getting” or “perceptive.” Recent surveys by our company found that traits like integrity, fairness and decisiveness often rise to the top of the list as the most important attributes for business leaders to possess.

2. Develop, don’t train

Remember that leaders can be nurtured and developed, but not manufactured. When creating a leadership development program, think about how you can place participants into situations that will require them to learn and grow. Examples include giving candidates the opportunity to step up when other leaders are away or to collaborate with colleagues in other departments on a special project. (Collaboration abilities are very important for today’s leaders to possess.)

Mentoring, training and organizational planning, with individual activities such as job rotation, job shadowing and project leadership, are often components of effective leadership development programs. Classroom training, such as MBA programs, executive education and online courses might also be part of a formal program. Also, be sure to support participants with ongoing feedback and coaching; this can be especially helpful coming from senior managers who can serve as role models and mentors.

3. Identify potential leaders (and avoid tunnel vision)

Potential leaders may be anywhere in your company — and identifying them isn’t always easy. A common mistake with leadership development programs is focusing resources only on top-performing employees. However, just because someone has demonstrated excellent work in his or her current position doesn’t mean that person will evolve into a leader for the business. Have an open mind, and be willing to look beyond the most obvious candidates. You might also consider inviting promising employees from other departments to engage in the program.

An effective leadership development program should be able to polish all the “diamonds in the rough” in your organization and give employees the skills and confidence to ascend the career ladder. You’ll likely find some people are perfectly happy to stay in their current jobs or pursue a different path that doesn’t take them to the management level. That’s OK. They can be leaders for your business in other ways. Just make sure that all employees are aware of the leadership development opportunities available in your organization and have an opportunity to take advantage of them.

4. Measure results

Before formally implementing your leadership development program, determine how you will measure your program’s success and impact. Some measurement options include:

  • The number of participants who complete the program successfully
  • The number of participants you promote after they have gone through the program
  • Increases in employees’ leadership responsibilities
  • Whether peers feel that program participants are developing into effective leaders

In addition, as part of your evaluation, assess whether employees developed leadership skills that will help them be more effective at their current jobs — not just qualify them for promotions down the line.

Effective business leaders also understand how every facet of the organization works. They don’t necessarily know all the fine details, but they do have a working overview of operations. So, encourage employees in your leadership development program to stretch their abilities even further by taking on projects that don’t typically cross their desks. This will require them to work outside their comfort zones and think along new lines. Their ability to adapt and thrive in these situations is another measure of success. (Just be careful not to overload these workers in the process.)

Keep retention in focus

In many ways, leadership development programs are like long-term staffing strategies: They help you to identify and groom talented employees who could potentially assume key management positions in the future. So, you want to be careful not to lose these valuable team members.

Offering promising employees compensation to match their developing skills is one strategy. You might also consider holding regular face-to-face meetings with future leaders to ensure they’re satisfied with their career path and feeling engaged. An employee rewards system, in which staff members earn incentives such as extra vacation days, designated parking spots or letters of appreciation from higher-ups for specific achievements long after the program has ended, can also positively impact retention.

Want more tips on how to keep your best people?

Download Robert Half’s free report, IT'S TIME WE ALL WORK HAPPY.®, for more research and analysis on what today’s accounting and finance professionals need to feel satisfied at work and stay engaged in their jobs.