How to Identify Your Company’s Next Generation of Leaders


When looking for your next generation of leaders, it makes sense to cultivate the widest pool you can manage. So why, when thinking about the future, do so many executives limit their options? In fact, when trying to find future leaders, companies tend to fall into three common issues:


Current leaders overvalue job performance, and undervalue character traits.

Current leaders tend to promote people who look, talk, act, and manage like they do.

Current leaders overvalue their own opinions, and undervalue those of their employees.


As the companies become more diverse, missteps like these can blind you to a wealth of promising candidates. Let’s fix that!


What follows are five ideas that can help you better identify the prospective leaders lurking in your company:


Performance Matters. But Potential Matters More.

In most companies, the best performers get promoted to managerial positions. Unfortunately, as anyone who’s suffered under a bad manager knows, job skills don’t always translate into leadership skills, and the best employee may not always make the best leader.


So how about this? Maybe your best salespeople, marketers, or engineers can serve your company better by remaining the best salespeople, marketers, or engineers. Then, when looking for leaders, you can focus less on job performance (though that matters, of course), and more on actual leadership skills. Like boundless curiosity. Or emotional intelligence. Or an outstanding ability to communicate.


Put differently, when trying to identify future leaders, simply skimming from the top layer of job performers isn’t always the best strategy.


Look for People Willing to Try Different Solutions — and Accept the Consequences

Pointing out problems is easy. What’s harder? Coming up with solutions. What’s even harder? Being wise enough to change things when the first solution doesn’t work.


Great leaders aren’t only those with the best ideas. They’re also willing to accept responsibility for the decisions they’ve made. Even —or especially —their failures. That’s what inspires other people.


So when looking for leaders, it’s not only important to search for creative thinkers. You also want to find people with the courage to fail, publicly, and to re-evaluate their strategies accordingly.


The Best Leaders Are Not Always Those Who Talk the Most

Studies show that people who talk the most in meetings (and who talk more rapidly) tend to be rated as more intelligent. Those people also overwhelmingly tend to be male. (Huge surprise there.)


Put differently, those people who seem to be leading in group settings may in fact not be leading at all – they’re just talking a lot. Don’t be suckered in! Maybe the best leader is the person best able to build consensus. Or the quiet person who waits to speak, but comes up with the most forward-thinking solution.


Furthermore, great leaders don’t all exhibit the same style. Some are extroverted, but plenty are more reserved and thoughtful. It may take employees longer to trust a more introverted leader, but those bonds can be far deeper.


Trust Your Employees’ Opinions

Too many executives tend to imagine that they can easily pick out the employees with leadership potential. But relying too much on your own opinions can limit the range of people you notice.


Here’s a different idea: ask your employees what they think. Every once in a while, ask all employees who, other than themselves, they think possesses the most leadership potential. Whom would they follow into uncharted territory? To whom would they most trust their jobs, or the future of the company?


This bottom-up approach to identifying leaders can pay huge dividends: you’re not only telling your employees that you value their opinions, you’re also locating people whom employees already look to for guidance.


Try Randomness (at Least Temporarily)

Admissions officers at Ivy League colleges often admit that they could have chosen a class made of up an entirely different group of applicants, and that that class would have been as successful as the one they did choose.


What’s the lesson? Sometimes the difference between success and failure isn’t about internal qualities, but opportunity.


A standard method of locating potential leaders is to pre-select some promising candidates, then test them out in more demanding settings. But what would happen if you chose employees at random and gave them all more complex tasks?


Sure, some employees wouldn’t enjoy the experience. But you’d certainly find others who didn’t know they had it in them, but end up thriving at more leadership-oriented tasks.


Sometimes the best way to outwit your own biases is to try a more random approach and see what comes of it.


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