Many organizations find it difficult to identify strong leaders.
Measuring current job performance isn’t enough because it tells you what a leader can do, not what he or she will do when presented with challenges from the next level of leadership. The following criteria can help identify future leaders and keep the talent pipeline flowing – mitigating the risk of developing the wrong people and/or not having a leader ready when a position opens.
It starts by taking a whole person approach and recognizing that skills, experiences, dispositions and motivators among successful senior executives are different from those in middle managers and first-level employees. These attributes do not simply manifest after a promotion; they germinate and grow over the course of a career. When you are aware of them, you can more accurately identify high-performing leaders who have potential and focus your development investment there.
There are seven signposts that correlate to future success. The clearer the signal on the greatest number of attributes, the better the odds that person will become a superior leader. Organizations should look closely at these facets when evaluating employees who they believe may have potential to be leaders:
1. Is the leader learning agile? Learning agility — the ability to adapt and perform well with new, challenging situations and then apply that learning to future situations — is critical to executive success and a key predictor of potential. Behaviors that may appear instinctual are often the result of lessons, often painfully acquired, from earlier experiences. Leaders less capable of learning from experience are prone to describe their experiences instead of talking about what they now know based on those experiences. Korn Ferry’s 2013 “The Agile Enterprise” report(editor’s note: The author works for the Korn Ferry Institute) shows that organizations with the greatest rate of highly agile executives produced 25 percent higher profit margins compared with peer companies.
2. Does the leader have a track record of the right formative experiences? Specific career experiences tend to accelerate high-performing leader development. A leader who has developed a strategy, managed difficult financial situations or honed external relationship skills tends to have the bandwidth to learn other essential skills. A leader who is behind the curve, who lacks one or more relevant experiences, is forced to learn these lessons while also learning the job. That extra stress, amid rapid change, makes the transition risky and more likely to go awry.
3. Does the leader have a leadership disposition?Dispositions form our personality. All of us are disposed to behave in certain ways, and we learn to adjust those behaviors to meet the demands of various situations. High-potential leaders tend to act like leaders. The more an individual’s disposition aligns with what is required for leadership success, the greater the potential for future high performance.
4. Does the leader display an appropriate level of self-awareness? To achieve high performance, leaders must begin with a clear view of their strengths and development needs and not be blind to their weaknesses. Self-aware leaders seek feedback while balancing their sense of self-trust. They continually look for ways to improve their leadership style and skills to maximize their effectiveness.
5. Is the leader motivated and does he or she want to be a leader?Not everyone wants to advance. People with leadership potential find the role of a leader interesting and the work of leading motivating. Leadership becomes progressively more difficult at every level, and the demands upon time and energy increase. If the work itself is not fundamentally engaging, it’s unlikely the leader will have the energy and resilience to thrive or even survive.
6. Can the leader display strong logic and reasoning power?You can call it capacity, mental bandwidth or logic and reasoning, but high-performing leaders have considerable cognitive ability. They are effective analytical and conceptual thinkers. They spot patterns or trends that others miss. They solve problems with aplomb — at first individually, and then as leaders — by marshaling and focusing resources on the right challenges. But there is a subtle trap as one moves up the chain: the role changes from primary problem solver to oversight of a problem to be solved. Leaders who cannot shift out of individual problem-solving mode and into the role of coach will struggle beyond midlevel leadership roles.
7. Does the leader rate low on derailment risk?Self-destructive leaders often end up on the covers of business magazines. Sometimes they ruin their own careers. Other times, they cripple entire organizations. Derailment risk increases at higher job levels, expectations are higher and consequences of failure are higher. At the same time, there are some behaviors that don’t become a career risk until a leader reaches a higher-level position. Higher-level leaders may be perceived as overcontrolling micromanagers. They may come across as arrogant, entitled, self-centered or defensive. Being aware of derailment risk and the behaviors that cause that risk allows companies and leaders to mitigate the risk via development.
When you find a leader who is self-aware, learns from experience, and has the right dispositions, ambitions, motivations and problem-solving style, you’ve found someone on the fast track to becoming a high-performing leader. Organizations that recognize these traits early and develop these leaders throughout their careers hone strong performers who understand the challenges and behavioral adaptations needed to advance to the next level.