ReadyToManage Webstore

Leadership and Management

Strengthening Your Leadership Pipeline

Strengthening Your Leadership Pipeline

Although many people would argue that leadership and building good managerial succession is an even more critical issue for start-ups and relatively small businesses, it is usually the case that as soon as an organization of any kind reaches a certain critical mass in terms of number of employees (perhaps 100 people) the more formal development of leaders becomes very important. This is simply because the CEO cannot achieve the goals of the organization on his or her own, and something must be done to help operational and functional leaders at all levels to learn new skills and behavior.

To develop leaders, many organizations often have a single leadership development approach with a pre-defined set of skills that are deemed to be most relevant, and individuals are then chosen to participate in whatever “programs” are made available. While this approach is better than doing nothing at all, it may do little to strengthen leaders at all levels or to build a leadership “pipeline” or the top to bottom chain-of-command that all organizations need to have in place if they want to optimize success.

An effective leadership pipeline should be a bit like a chain – solid and with strong links throughout. In leadership terms, this means that the length of the chain should be kept relatively short and that most effort is needed at the link points or when people transition from one “tier” of the pipeline to the next.

Leadership Pipeline ModelIn the diagram to the right is a single model for a leadership pipeline. In the rest of this article, we will explain why it is designed in this way and then we will describe each of the tiers in more detail.

Why does this pipeline model have 5 levels and not 3 or 7 or more?

In our experience there are five very different, discrete, and almost non-overlapping levels or tiers in an organization of a certain size (greater than 100 people typically). These tiers represent big leaps for people to perform in the role and we therefore need to focus on not only evolving the skills needed to be successful within the current tier but also to be ready to perform adequately and then well at the next.

Why do we call this a “career elevator”?

We often think about leadership development as a progressive journey for an individual who slowly builds skills and new behaviors and works their way as far towards the top as he or she is capable of going. However, while this may be true to go from one job to another (and perhaps gaining a more senior role or pay increase) it is not so true of the four transitions that lie between these tiers. In other words, the focus, effort, competencies and behavior needed at each tier are very different and are therefore more analogous to the different goods that we may lay out in a department store, and we would travel to these floors by elevator, leaving the lower tier behind as we ascend and then enter a new world at the tier we enter as the elevator doors open.

Do most leaders progress through these tiers?

Although many individuals over a career may well transition smoothly through all five tiers shown in the model in a linear way, this is not always the case. Some people will never get beyond the first level (and perhaps be an informal team leader or “veteran employee” to others in the team but never formally progress to tier 2. Even more commonly, leaders may make no progression beyond tier two as the leap is such a significant one and requires many more new and different skills and behaviors to be learned in order to be successful. When a transition from tier 2 to tier 3 is made, it is possible for individuals to jump over a tier, simply by being appointed to a much bigger job role. This has happened much more frequently recently as many organizations have downsized or asked people to apply back for their own and other jobs in a “shrunken” enterprise. Whether or not the path is linear however is not the point here. The key issue is that these tiers represent very large leaps in skill and behavior and so we are best served to develop people to perform well within the tier at which we want them to operate today or to perform well in a higher tier in the future. This is why there are particular competencies to focus upon within each tier.

Why are particular competencies associated with each tier?

Any given competency cannot be completely attached or “anchored” to one tier in the career elevator (as it may contribute at many tiers). However, the more that development effort is focused on a particular set of competencies that seem to be most relevant and contributory to success at a given tier, the better. In very simple terms, the competencies needed at tier 1 (which are essentially about knowing and managing yourself) are very different to those needed at tier 2 (which are essentially about managing the immediate team) and so on.

Are there substantive differences in management and leadership skills at each tier?

Leadership (which is fundamentally about setting direction, motivating people and dealing flexibly with change) is very different from management (which is fundamentally about setting targets and measuring progress as well as putting good control systems in place). We know we need both to be successful and for this reason the career elevator encompasses each skill set at every tier. In order to be clear about the main skills needed on both sides of this particular coin, the chart below shows the key areas of focus and responsibility at each career tier. 

The Career Elevator – Key areas of focus and responsibility at each career tier

Career Tier

Leadership areas of focus

Management areas of focus

Tier 1


  • Build personal self-esteem
  • Know yourself/self-awareness
  • Appreciate strengths/ development needs
  • Become Learning/Discovery centered
  • Develop personal emotional intelligence
  • Plan schedule tasks and people
  • Organize/coordinate self and others
  • Manage time and personal stress
  • Set personal goals and measure progress
  • Guide/Coach peers and colleagues

Tier 2

Team Management

  • Manage people
  • Delegate/assign work tasks/projects
  • Identify/remove progress roadblocks
  • Suggest alternative courses of action
  • Offer and seek feedback
  • Analyze and interpolate data
  • Separate facts from assumptions
  • Break down/understand process flows
  • Manage other people’s pressure/stress
  • Plan work for/organize the team

Tier 3

Multi-Process Management

  • Develop warm/empathetic relationships
  • Empower people
  • Manage individual/team conflicts
  • Negotiate
  • Reflect more deeply
  • Develop functional knowledge
  • Develop deep process/quality knowledge
  • Evolve problem-solving approaches
  • Deal with ambiguity
  • Juggle competing priorities to set goals

Tier 4

Unit/Departmental Management

  • Evolve critical thinking skills
  • Focus on customers/service issues
  • Ask insightful questions
  • Manage/Optimize peer relationships
  • Manage Change
  • Evolve unit business knowledge
  • Develop financial acumen
  • Calculate commercial payoffs of projects
  • Manage complex projects
  • Be decisive after due consideration

Tier 5

Whole Business Management

  • Think ahead/ anticipate events/change
  • Develop future visions
  • Evolve creativity/innovation approach
  • Communicate in/out of the organization
  • Develop key people and teams
  • Evolve judgment/perception skills
  • Manage risk
  • Develop strategy and broad tactics
  • Select from alternative courses of action
  • Plan contingencies/fall-back positions

How can this career elevator model be applied to development?

The career elevator is not designed to be an academic or theoretical model. Instead its ideal use is by showing it to leaders at all levels (even if it is modified somewhat to fit a particular culture or type of organization). This helps those people who are tasked with providing development with an “audit protocol” or a simple tool to assess how many individual leaders are at each level and whether or not they have the skills to perform well at their current tier, and even succeed to the next within a reasonable time-frame. It also helps the leaders themselves to know what is expected in terms of competency development within their current tier and to appreciate what is going to be required in order to progress to the next. Finally, and perhaps most simply, the career elevator model is most useful in listing the six competencies that are likely to be most contributory in being both efficient and effective in management and leadership terms at every tier.

The 5 Tiers within the Career Elevator Model

Tier 1 – Knowing and Managing Yourself

Task Focused Leadership

Task focused leadership and self-management is the solid base upon which any leader’s career should ideally be built. In other words, if we can’t manage ourselves well, how can we expect to manage others successfully? The competencies at this level are therefore all about the leader discovering ways to increase personal flexibility, listen more attentively and make sensible choices when it comes to the use of personal time. However, perhaps most significantly, it involves dealing with any shortfalls that may exist when it comes to self-esteem or stress. If these are not dealt with at this early stage, these may become an “Achilles heel” for one’s entire career.

Tier 2 – Managing People and Processes

Process Focused Leadership

Process-focused leadership and team management is about transitioning from mainly managing yourself and working for and with people, to assigning and delegating tasks to others and becoming less of a task contributor. Individuals therefore have to be better communicators and start to recognize the relative strengths and weaknesses of team members and use this information to then plan and organize tasks and projects intelligently. Because an individual’s adeptness at the functional work being supervised is not nearly as relevant or even needed at this level, learning to perform well at this tier can take some people many years, with many leaders not being willing or able to go any further in managerial progression terms (they simply cannot ever let go of being “one of the team”).

Tier 3 – Managing Operations and Multiple Processes

Operational Leadership

Operational leadership and multi-process management usually occurs when an individual is asked to manage tasks and processes that he or she has not previously managed and has not typically been trained to manage. This makes the leader very reliant on their reporting supervisors and the whole team they are managing and he or she has to therefore develop good (and hopefully warm and empathetic) relationships with everyone. Leaders at this tier also have to learn how to problem-solve, negotiate and deal with work and people conflicts in sensible and credible ways. Given their functional knowledge may be low to start with, this can take a lot of time, effort and focused energy to build expertise quickly, mainly by talking openly with people.

Tier 4 – Managing a whole unit or department in tactical terms

Tactical Leadership

Tactical leadership and unit/department management occurs when an individual takes on a whole discrete unit or department within an organization. In some cases, this may be an entire function such as marketing, sales, human resources or distribution for example. However, in other cases it may be a geographic division of a whole company such as a state or country general manager for example. In both cases, the challenges here are greatest in being commercially accountable, often for the first time, and having to work through intermediary managers to get things done. The key skill sets here are critical thinking and evolving an ability to ask searching questions, and to do so when things don’t go to plan or significant change comes along (which is often manifested in budgetary or financial pressure terms).

Tier 5 – Strategically leading a whole business or organization

Strategic Leadership

Strategic leadership and whole business management occurs when an individual reaches a position where they have a clearly defined business, relatively independent part of a business or whole organization under their managerial control. This could be to run a government agency, a large profit-centered commercial business or even a large-scale (perhaps national) not-for-profit entity. In this role the challenge is actually to establish some distance from the day-to-day work (and ensure that intermediary managers are well-trained to handle this) and instead focus on the clarity of the vision and forward strategy. At this level, communication is both across the whole organization and also with many external stakeholder organizations and the leader has to use considerable judgment about what is likely to affect his or her organization, positively or negatively and make, then communicate, the necessary adjustments, well ahead of time.


Building a strong leadership pipeline or establishing the “Career elevator” for your organization is a critical first step in seeking to develop all leaders in highly focused ways. Our 5 tier model can help. For a simple one page integrated infographic on the Career elevator described above, see below:

5 Tier Career Ladder Elevator: Leadership Pipeline Model

Related Resources

Share this article.

About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

View all posts by Dr. Jon Warner →

Related Posts

Shop the ReadyToManage Webstore for 100's of downloadable coaching, training and development resources!


  1. ShibeshiOctober 9, 2012 at 9:30 am

    Would you please send me slide on Leadership, or performance management or related field if there is any that would help for presentation to train my staff.

    with regards

    • Dr. Jon WarnerOctober 10, 2012 at 9:08 pmAuthor

      I dont have any PowePoint slides we can send I am afraid but there are plenty of related materials on the store

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

Newsletter Subscribe

ReadyToManage Webstore Close-Out Sale


ReadyToManage is your one-stop shop for world class employee and personal development resources.  Our mission is to assist individuals and companies in developing management, leadership, and business skills in themselves and their employees through effective and affordable development materials and courses.

Newsletter Subscribe

Join Now!

Search Topics