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One of the biggest challenges in any succession management plan is finding the right employees to put into the leadership pipeline. Many companies base their decisions on the productivity, seniority, or likeability of leadership candidates. However, research shows that only about one in seven of a company’s high performing employees are actually high-potential leaders.

So, if productivity and seniority aren’t the right indicators for leadership potential, what makes for a high-potential employee?

Three of the qualities that stand out as consistently appearing in the profile of a high-potential leadership candidate are:

  1. Ability,
  2. Aspiration, and
  3. Engagement.

What Does Ability Mean for a High-Potential Employee?

When we talk about ability, we do not mean just the employee’s productivity. While productivity at one’s job is an element of ability, there is more to evaluating a potential leader’s ability.

Instead, it’s important to focus on:

  • Desired Competencies. Does the candidate have the right skills to succeed in the leadership role you need them to fill? When assessing a candidate, using a success profile that describes each of the skills and behaviors exhibited by great leaders in that position can be useful for identifying high potentials.
  • Work Efficiency. One of the things that separates high potentials from others is their ability to work more efficiently than their peers to get more done with fewer resources or in less time. Employees who simply work more hours are not necessarily as equipped with the organizational skills needed to efficiently manage work.
  • The Employee’s Sense of Ownership/Initiative Regarding Work. When the employee is given an assignment, do they simply fulfill the minimum objectives on time, or do they go the extra mile to make sure tasks are completed quickly and to a high standard of quality? Employees who take ownership of their work and go the extra mile without needing to be asked have higher levels of accountability and may inspire others to do so as well.

Each one on of these elements of ability contributes to the success of a leader in some way, whether it’s ensuring they have the right technical skills and attitudes, are able to organize and prioritize work for efficiency, or the determination to lead by example and inspire others to go above and beyond.

Aspirations of High-Potential

A high-potential employee will often have a significant amount of ambition. Not necessarily the ambition to have a “higher” position per se, but rather to continuously grow and improve. Some key characteristics of aspiration that might indicate a high-potential employee include:

  • The Desire to Learn. Those who exhibit a near-insatiable thirst for new knowledge and demonstrate “learning agility” (the ability and willingness to pick up and master the basic concepts of new subjects from practical experience and then apply that learning in new situations) frequently have extraordinary leadership potential. These employees are often better able to adapt to new situations and information—contributing to their agility.
  • Actively Seeking Feedback. Seeking feedback about one’s performance is a key part of self-improvement. Employees who constantly work to get feedback about their performance or behaviors are more likely to possess strong self-awareness—which is a key trait of agile leaders.
  • Expressing Interest in New Roles. Employees who seek new experiences by signing up for different roles in the company will, whether they realize it or not, improve their understanding of the different systems and processes in the business. This helps to improve the employee’s systems-based thinking, which helps agile leaders anticipate how changes to one system or process in one department may impact others.
  • Participating in Training and Development. High-potential leadership candidates are often eager to develop their skills, and will seek out opportunities to participate in both formal and on the job training that will help them do that. Frequent participation in such development programs helps to broaden the candidate’s skills to make them more effective as leaders.

Each of these characteristics demonstrates the extent to which a high-potential employee aspires to self-improvement and advancement—while helping them prepare for a future leadership role.

Signs of Engagement

Employee engagement and retention is a constant struggle for businesses all over the world. In fact, according to data from Gallup, “87% of employees worldwide are not engaged.” An engaged employee is more likely to stay with an organization, have strong performance as a leader, and inspire others to action than a disengaged one.

Some of the hallmarks of an engaged employee to look for when assessing leadership candidates include:

  • Passion for Your Company’s Industry. How enthusiastic is the employee about the industry your company serves? Leaders set the tone for their teams, and their enthusiasm or reticence will spread to others quickly—affecting performance.
  • Engaged in the Workplace. How often does the employee go above and beyond the minimum requirements of their job? Engaged employees will volunteer to task forces and projects and work harder and take ownership of their work to make sure it is completed in the right way the first time.
  • Acting as an Ambassador for Your Company. When interacting with others, does the employee represent your company in a positive light? Do they mentor junior employees or help with the on-boarding process of new employees? Employees who are engaged enough with your company’s brand to recommend the company to their circle of friends as both a great place to work and an example of the best traits of your industry are more likely to stay with the company and inspire others to do their best work. .

Highly engaged employees aren’t just productive—they show everyone around them the best traits of your business, which inspires others to be more productive as well.

Identifying High-Potential Employees

Knowing what to look for in a leadership candidate alone isn’t enough. You need a reliable means of uncovering this information about your high-potential employees.

There are many tools that you could use to assess and identify high-potential leaders in your organization, including:

  • 360 Feedback Surveys. By collecting information about the candidate from their peers, direct reports, and supervisors, you can create a better profile of the skills and behaviors they exhibit on the job.
  • Behavioral Interviews. By assessing the attitudes and behaviors of leadership candidates and comparing them to the success profile for a given role, it’s possible to find the best fit for the role.
  • Situational Judgment Tests/Simulations. By putting leadership candidates into situations similar to the conditions they’ll face on the job, you can observe their behaviors and skills while preparing them for their future role.
  • Leadership Questionnaires. Self-assessments designed to gather data about a leadership candidate’s attitudes, behaviors, and skills to provide more objective data to fuel your succession management decisions.

These tools can help you uncover more information about your leadership candidates so that you can make informed, objective, and data-driven decisions about which candidates to include in your pipeline , and how to develop them.

Finding great leaders isn’t always easy. However, by knowing what to look for in a leadership candidate and using the right leadership assessment tools, it is possible to make your search easier and more reliable.

If you need assistance in identifying and developing high potential employees for your company, please contact OnPoint Consulting today. We have decades of experience in leadership development and succession management that you can leverage for your own company’s processes.

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