If you’re a CEO or other top executive, the time will almost inevitably come when you are asked to evaluate someone else’s leadership potential. After all, you know what it takes, so you should be able to help determine if someone else shows promise as a leader.
Recognizing true leadership potential means depending on more than hunches.
But most of us haven’t been taught how to recognize potential leadership. Sometimes a person’s potential is obvious, but more often, you have to dig a little to learn whether someone is ready for a leadership role, and if presented with multiple candidates for leadership, you have to evaluate which one is best for the needs at hand. It isn’t easy. Here are some guidelines for learning whether someone is ready to lead.
Gauging Their Leadership Experience So Far
A good place to start is with learning more about what types of leadership experience someone already has. It could be inside or outside of work, and in a younger person, it may reach back to college or graduate school. Reviewing projects in which someone has demonstrated leadership can be helpful, as can learning about their non-work life. Have they led a sports team? Do they head a team of community volunteers? Did they raise younger siblings after the death of parents? There are all sorts of life circumstances that call upon people’s leadership capabilities, and many of them happen away from the office.
Questions to Assess Potential Management Skills
At some point you’ll want to sit down with a leadership position candidate and ask questions. Perhaps the first question to ask is how they define “management” or “leadership.” Other questions that can be valuable for determining someone’s potential as a leader include:
• When have you had to improve self-awareness to make progress?
• What do you think the challenges of managing this team are?
• What sort of leadership experience do you have from outside work?
• Which coworkers would vouch for your ability to manage and lead?
• If you became a team manager, how would you make the transition from your current role?
• What steps have you taken to develop “soft” as well as hard skills?
• How do you balance the big picture with day-to-day objectives?
Questions for Assessing a Potential Leader’s Emotional Intelligence
Emotionally intelligent leaders are more effective than emotionally disengaged ones.
Being an effective leader is about more than just having and demonstrating work skills. Without emotional intelligence, leadership is tone deaf and often ineffective. Here are some key questions you can ask to gain better understanding of someone’s emotional intelligence:
• Whom do you consider inspiring and why?
• If you owned a company, what would its top values be?
• When priorities change, as they do, how would you help others adjust?
• Have you made lasting professional friendships at previous jobs?
• What skills do you feel like you need to develop?
• Can you teach me something (like how you became a marathon runner, or how you made that cake you brought to the Christmas party)?
• To what do you attribute your success so far?
Answers can inform you if someone’s leadership potential is real or manufactured, whether a person is self-centered or shares credit (and blame), and whether they prioritize success of the team over their own personal gain.
Warning Signs Someone Isn’t Ready for Leadership
The person who seemingly already knows everything usually isn’t ready for leadership. One of the first things you encounter as a top leader is your own limitations, and if you don’t recognize them, you can’t lead effectively. Another sign someone isn’t ready to lead is when they do not own bad results as well as good ones. The ability to say, “I’m doing something wrong, and I need help getting things back on track” is not an admission of failure, but a sign of striving to improve.
The person who associates leadership with power and with making and enforcing rules is typically not ready for real leadership either. Micromanagers tend not to make good leaders, because they don’t recognize there are multiple ways to accomplish tasks. Did this person immediately hire someone just like them the first chance they had to make a hiring decision? Hiring “clones” generally doesn’t speak well of leadership ability.
Sometimes we recognize real leadership when we see it, but often we have to learn more to determine if our perceptions are accurate. I invite you to explore my books on important aspects of leadership development, including coaching, talent management, and succession planning. The most outstanding leaders are the ones who know how to recognize and develop leadership potential in others.