Identifying the future leaders of your company

by 07 May 2012

Many organisations spend significant time and resources creating programs to accelerate the performance and leadership development of high-potential employees, yet these programs can be inherently flawed and consequently promote the wrong people. Too often, organisations miss the most promising potential leaders because they don’t recognise the right competencies and traits.

You can spot the characteristics of a high potential early in an employee’s career, you just need to know what you’re looking for. And it’s not always what you might expect.

Hay Group has conducted research into the patterns and common competencies in the most outstanding leaders from across the world. This research has uncovered four distinct ‘growth factors’ that predict executive potential: Cognitive traits such as curiosity, an eagerness to learn and a willingness to take risks in order to learn new things; Breadth of perspective, which isevident in lateral career moves or a university degree with diverse areas of study; Emotional intelligence including optimism, emotional balance and maturity, the ability to help others to be more mature and a degree of level-headedness; and Empathy, which is seen through the employee’s propensity to care about their work, their colleagues and their customers.

Interestingly, the characteristics normally associated with business success, such as a person’s career aspirations, confidence, and strong performance in a current role,are not indicatorsof a future leader, and many organisations that look for these traits alonemay be disappointed in their candidates. Also, the four growth factors identified by Hay Group can be demonstrated across employees of diverse gender, culture and age, and are not limited to a certain personality profile. 

Relying on a subjective ‘observation’ approach to identifying high potentials can lead to a flawed program; real talent is missed in favour ofthe candidates whowork hardest to impress or most closely resemble current senior executives.

Many of the organisations that are running successful leadership development programs are using strategic assessment resources, such as Hay Group’s online Growth Factor Inventory tool, to efficiently and reliably identify individuals with the capacity and competencies to develop into true leaders, even at an early point in their careers. The growth factor inventory helps organisations solve a key problem in accurately evaluating employees as possible future leaders: separating current performance from future potential. This tool addresses that issue by measuring the specific qualities that enable an individual to benefit from opportunities such as mentoring, stretch assignments, and executive leadership programs.

It’s important to understand that high potentials may not succeed straight away, and promoting them too quickly without any support structures can be severely detrimental. The belief is quite widespread that they should flourish in any role, but organisational and cultural fit is still pivotal for high potentials to perform well and meet such high expectations. It is also common that organisations don’t allow their high potentials to make mistakes. Only by making mistakes, candidates can develop the confidence to take risks and to grow as a professional.Another misconception is that those identified as high potentials will automatically succeed, without further development.  This is not the case and there is no guarantee. Opportunities must be provided and mentoring support should be ongoing to ensure this leadership potential is nurtured and fully realised.

A successful, robust high-potential leadership program starts with appropriate selection and evaluation of high-potential skills, characteristics and competencies. Companies that want to get the most out their high-potential programs and want to have the certainty that their programs actually work, need an approach that begins by objectively assessingand developing those growth factor indicators through reliable tools in order to transform high-potential candidates into true leaders of the future.

Why bother?

Tools that identify individuals with the capacity and competencies to develop into true leaders are particularly valuable in today's economy for two reasons:

  1. Competition for top talent. With a static or shrinking workforce, veteran managers approaching retirement in record numbers, and intense global competition for the most talented individuals, identifying and developing future leaders from within your organisation should be a priority for every enterprise.
  2. Scarce development resources. Resources for leadership development typically shrink in a challenging economy, making the ability of the tool to identify the strongest candidates for development opportunities even more valuable.


About the author

Ralph Marshall is a business unit manager, Hay Group Pacific