HOW TO IDENTIFY A FUTURE LEADER

“In the C-suite, the need to develop and implement a plan for leadership succession is one of the most frequently discussed topics. Yet the overwhelming majority of companies have done little about it.”
Wayne F. Cascio

I have found that most companies today have actually implemented some form of succession planning process, and yet I have found very few which have one that actually achieves what one would expect, being an easy, well-structured handover to a planned, ready successor. Many companies treat succession planning as a “tick-in-the-box-done-that-so-it’s-out-of-the-way” chore for management, and the vast majority of organisations will still tend to go outside to fill vacancies for senior level appointments. The excuse is that the organisation will benefit from “new blood” and hence new ideas.

Author: Purple Slog; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Purple Slog; CC BY 2.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


I have always believed that an internal candidate who has been mentored, developed and prepared, and who may be only a 70%-fit for the role, and who has already proven loyalty, skill, attitude, commitment and success within the company is a seriously better bet to deliver what the company needs than an outsider who may initially look like a 90%-fit on paper.

But it is not easy to recognise the skills, characteristics and personal assets that are needed for leadership, and many companies still make the mistake in believing that it is always the most successful individual contributor who will make the best manager. This means that the most successful salesman is made a sales manager, in the same way that the promotion will go to the largest fee-earning consultant or the most creative product design engineer, often with disastrous results.

This is as true for C-level succession as it is for succession and promotion at lower levels.

Here are ten key characteristics of potential leadership capability that I have tended to look for in internal candidates for possible promotion at any and all levels, and that I believe give at least some basis for recognising future leaders.

They are passionate about the company and what it does … The vast majority of workers see their company as being in a symbiotic relationship with them of work for reward, but there are some who are thrilled to be part of an organisation that ticks all their boxes, and excites them to the point of passion. I have always believed that this “infectious passion” is a key element of true leadership.

Author: Barry Langdon-Lassagne; CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


People listen to them and follow their lead … Leaders accumulate followers without needing the position title. People will learn from them and emulate their actions and attitudes, because they know what they are doing, are successful and are inclusive, irrespective of what is written on their business card.

They solve problems … Leaders look for a way to solve problems that get in the way of achieving their own and team goals (see “Managers solve problems” posted March 13, 2013). People who can build solutions to barriers that get in the way of team success are a rare commodity and should be cherished and nurtured.

They love what they do … Great people put massive energy into doing what is needed of them and focus on doing their job well. This doesn’t mean that they have nothing outside of work, as true leaders have well-balanced lives and interests, but it does mean that they will also, when needed, be prepared to give up personal time if there is a critical issue that needs resolution.

They mentor, help, advise and encourage younger team members … Mentoring, advising, teaching and guiding younger and/or newer team members, without being asked to do so, and as a natural extension of their time and efforts, is one of the key indicators of a potential future leader. It doesn’t need a formal HR driven mentoring programme to be able to identify those who do it willingly and as a matter of course.

Author: Mamunjoy; CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Mamunjoy; CC BY 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


They drive change … Most people who appear to do well do so by protecting “the company way”, as this is one of the easiest ways to please management. True leaders drive change, and if you have no-one in your team who questions the status quo it is unlikely that you have a worthwhile successor, or that you will change quickly enough to address an ever changing business environment. ”A person who does not worry about the future will soon have worries about the present.” Ancient Chinese proverb.

They will stand up to you … Management takes courage in many different ways (see “The art of managerial courage” posted March 3, 2014) and those you view as potential future leaders need to be prepared to stand up and fight for what they believe in, even if it means going up against their boss or the herd. You must allow people with divergent ideas to have a forum to be heard, even if they do not always get their way, but the attitude of “my way or the highway” won’t work.

They can build co-operation … Good leaders know how to build co-operation and get consensus to ensure that everyone needed is involved and committed. One of my key criteria for promotion is to look for people who can attract support readily from those around them. Great salesmen may be those that can do it all on their own, but great sales managers are those that have shown that the pre-sales and support people were always ready to jump to their side in a sales campaign.

They get things done … there are those who can look good and who can “talk the talk” (empty suits) but you need to look out for, nurture and develop those who show a skill for getting things done, who meet their deadlines and who can make things happen.

They don’t play games … Understanding how to get around office politics is a key skillset for anyone in a company (see “A dummy’s guide to office politics” posted May 6, 2013), but those who love to play office politics should be weeded out. Game players who try and get ahead through intrigues are destructive and will drive out good people. Weak managers will promote politicians; great managers get rid of them.

“In the end, all business operations can be reduced to three words: people, product and profits. Unless you’ve got a good team, you can’t do much with the other two.”
American businessman Lee Iacocca

Author: Ralph Alswang; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Ralph Alswang; via Wikimedia Commons


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4 Responses to HOW TO IDENTIFY A FUTURE LEADER

  1. Adriana says:

    Mr. Hayman, each time I hit the professional reality in an uncomfortable way, I come back to your blog to see this man who walked the talk and succeeded at the same time. Still, there are moments when I wonder if you’re not some alien that succeeded only by accident on this Earth… :). Please tell me your nature is human! Did you ever make mistakes? Thank you. Adriana

    • leshayman says:

      Adriana, thank you for your kind words. I made hundreds of mistakes and learned more from them than from the successes. Doing well is not so much about how many times you fall down, but is about how many times you get up. I hope that I have the opportunity to make many more mistakes as I still have so much to learn. Les

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