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Planning Ahead: How to Spot Potential for Leadership


The ability to find leadership potential in current employees is one of the most important things a company can do to maintain their adaptability. A company’s future is becoming more and more dependent on the thoughts and ideas of its new employees—after all, they’ll be the ones responsible for ushering that company into the future. In order to make the most of this up-and-coming workforce, it’s up to management to start looking for leadership potential early on in an employee’s time with a company. Not everyone will be a good fit, but by making the effort to be mindful about the potential of new employees, leaders can be found early on and nurtured into strong influences within the company ideology.

Reconsider Seniority

Often, a company’s management structure is focused on employees who have been with the company for several years—those who have “paid their dues,” so to speak. While there’s nothing wrong with recognizing solid performance from those who have become company veterans, it shouldn’t be the only thing that management considers before selecting someone for a leadership training program. A company that exclusively gives opportunities for advancement to senior employees sets a precedent that results in younger—and perhaps more qualified—professionals to seek employment elsewhere.

It’s a phenomenon that Bob Herbold, former COO of Microsoft, compared to the U.S. Army’s poor retention of mid-ranking officers. He noticed that when an organization primarily promotes those who have the most seniority, that organization neglects its new crop of contributors. As a company’s newer employees are the ones who represent the company’s future, it can be dangerous to offer leadership training and opportunities to only senior employees.

The best way to establish an equal opportunity environment for leadership training is to create and maintain a consistent performance review process. If your candidates for promotion or leadership training meet the standards that you have set, then age takes a back seat to ability when it comes to consideration for new leadership positions.

How to Spot Potential

Once a company’s management shifts their paradigm to only search for merit and work ethic among its employees, the next challenge comes from spotting potential. Regardless of an employee’s time with a company, potential is something that is not always easily recognizable from the management perspective. While there are steps that management can take to spot leadership potential in their employees, a company needs to be comfortable with taking risks on employees.

Not every candidate for leadership training will pan out, and that has to be okay for a company in the long run. The risk of seeing a candidate quit their job after completing their training, or make a costly mistake from a leadership position is worth the reward of seeing a candidate go on to accomplish great things within the company. When a company’s employees see that management values their potential enough to offer them access to a leadership training program, they know that their efforts are being recognized.

Approaching Rejection

One of the most difficult parts of evaluating employees for candidacy in a leadership program is finding out that an employee with so much potential isn’t interested in a leadership role in a company’s ranks. As most employees aren’t looking for a leadership position at their jobs, this is an outcome that is fairly likely to take place after setting sights on a good candidate for leadership training.

It’s an awkward conversation to have when a manager reaches out to an employee with potential only to have that employee politely decline the offer. Rejection in any form is one of the most difficult things for people to experience, and having an employee reject the offer to participate in a leadership program can discourage a manager from taking another risk on someone else. The employee who rejected the offer will likely feel like they’ve just burned a bridge if they refuse the offer—all in all, it’s a sticky situation.

While we can’t always prevent rejection, there are ways to bounce back if an employee refuses an offer. Managers should first and foremost remain polite and professional when something like this does happen, but they should also try and get a sense of why that employee didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of starting down a leadership path. Nine times out of ten, these reasons will be completely understandable, and this refusal shouldn’t be seen as representative of the employee’s attitude toward the company. With a little patience, employees who don’t feel comfortable with the idea of leadership training now might welcome it a bit down the road.

Selecting candidates for leadership programs is like anything that a company needs for success. There will always be a risk involved, but having a solid method of selecting candidates can help turn that risk to the company’s favor.

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