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The Critical Gap in Ed-tech Leadership Depth

Leadership depth is a critical success factor for scaling businesses. A strong management team with a clear succession plan ensures business continuity and is an indicator of the viability and investability of the business. Yet, very few companies have established the necessary pipeline of leadership. Equally alarming is the misalignment of expectations between C-level Executives and high-potential leaders regarding what it takes to serve at the next level.


Executives are lacking confidence in their company’s leadership depth

In a recent study of ed-tech leaders, the Ed-tech Leadership Collective found that only 18% of C-level Executives were confident in their ability to hire from within if a vacancy on their leadership team occurred. Losing a management-team member or a Department Head is increasingly likely in a competitive market and creates a significant risk for the business. Such vacancies can interrupt the company’s momentum, derailing growth plans while the successor is hired and trained.

Considering the low level of confidence in the internal talent pool, companies often look to external candidates as a seemingly faster and safer route. However, a national survey of HR leaders conducted by Development Dimensions International found the success rates of executives who were external hires was 25% lower than those who were internal hires. Therefore, building internal-talent depth and succession plans should be a priority for ed-tech growth companies.

Middle managers are overly optimistic about their readiness

Although C-level Executives are clearly uneasy about leadership depth, their middle managers are surprisingly bullish on their ability to step up to the C-suite. Three-quarters (74%) of Department Heads who were not already members of the executive-leadership team felt confident in their ability to capably serve if they were asked to join the executive team. In addition, most leaders of functional teams (63%) felt confident in their ability to step into the Department Head role. This major disconnect between C-level and middle-manager perspectives suggests that companies lack not only sufficient succession plans but also clear communication with their employees regarding what is required to succeed at the next level.


Four crucial skills for emerging leaders

The dramatic gap in expectations between C-level Executives and high-potential employees can manifest itself in some common pain points that create a management burden on the C-suite and bottlenecks that slow company growth. Company growth heightens the need for a more distributed form of leadership, which is why C-level Executives identified the following skills and competencies as most important for high-potential employees striving to reach the next level:

  • Delegation and empowering team members
  • Situational analysis and decision-making
  • Managing priorities and metric-based goals
  • Communication skills


Pathways to leadership development

Despite the acknowledged gaps and the associated risks, few companies are investing the time and resources to address the problem. Among those C-level Executives who expressed a lack of confidence in their succession plan, only 7% felt that their high-potential employees are receiving the mentoring and support they need in order to reach their full potential.

Absent the necessary mentoring and support, high-potential employees are likely to struggle to build their leadership capabilities. At this critical stage, they “don’t know what they don't know,” and they desperately need feedback on their blind spots, perspective on their communication style and insight on what obstacles to anticipate.

Not surprisingly, C-level Executives and middle managers are fairly aligned on the importance of intensive mentoring and support for high-potential employees. Two-thirds (65%) indicate they are likely or very likely to pursue 1:1 executive coaching, while more than half (57%) indicate they are likely or very likely to pursue professional peer groups in order to establish the necessary mentoring and support structures.


Leadership development and succession planning is a business imperative that has far-reaching implications, but many companies acknowledge they have underinvested in doing what’s necessary to succeed. Understanding the gaps, aligning on the expectations and supporting knowledge and skills through intensive mentoring and support can help solidify management depth and continuity of the business.

Collin Earnst is founder and managing partner of the Ed-tech Leadership Collective, an organization focused on helping high-potential employees achieve the professional breakthroughs necessary for businesses to succeed. The Collective provides executive coaching as well as professional peer groups designed specifically for high-potential ed-tech employees at key points in their career.