Seven Signposts Pointing to High-Potential Leaders

All high-potential leaders are marked by seven essential signposts that indicate their likelihood of future success. Identifying such high-potential leaders early lets an organization deliberately develop future executives.

From the Summer 2014 edition of Vanderbilt Business

How can executives or organizations predict who will become a successful future leader? The skills, experiences, dispositions and motivators that correlate with success in senior executives are different from those for middle management or entry-level roles. These leadership attributes do not simply spring into existence when a person is promoted into leadership; they manifest and grow over the course of a career.

Illustration_Man_at_CrossroadsAll high-potential leaders are marked by seven essential signposts that indicate their likelihood of future success. Identifying such high-potential leaders early lets an organization deliberately develop future executives so that when a need arises, someone with the requisite ability is prepared to step up to the challenge. This is the only truly proactive way to manage a talent pipeline.

  1. A track record of formative experiences

Even though every leader’s career is unique, their paths into leadership follow a predictable course: It starts with managing others and works up to more management responsibility. Each leadership level is defined by challenges and experiences.

Korn Ferry International research has identified key career experiences that build the abilities of high-performing leaders. A leader who has developed a strategy, managed difficult financial situations, or honed external relationship management has much more bandwidth to learn everything else he/she must conquer to succeed when promoted to the next level. The individuals who reach the highest levels of leadership consistently have experience in general management, and handling critical or risky situations and problem-solving challenges.

2. Ability to learn from experience

People who learn from experience not only glean multiple, varied lessons from their experience, they effectively apply those lessons to be effective in new situations. They are able to develop frameworks, rubrics and rules of thumb that will guide them when managing recurring issues, and help them recognize and address the truly new challenge when it arrives.

Those with high potential for leadership take more lessons from their experiences, can describe the insights, and even show how they have applied the lessons.

3. Self-awareness

To achieve high performance, leaders must begin with a clear-eyed view of their existing strengths and their development needs. They need to know where they excel and when they can trust their instincts and abilities. They also need to recognize where they have weaknesses and when they need to rely on the insights and abilities of others.

Being self-aware allows high-potential leaders to understand the impact that people and situations have on them. They also observe the effect they have on people and situations and use that knowledge to manage and influence people.

4. Leadership disposition

All of us are disposed to behave in certain ways, and all (or at least most) of us learn to adjust those behaviors to meet the demands of various situations.

The more an individual’s dispositions align with what is required for leadership success, the greater the potential for future high performance. Some dispositions become more important at higher leadership levels, others less important. For instance, attention to detail may contribute to early career success, but inhibit or even derail a top executive. This shift accounts (in part) for the paradox of a merely satisfactory new manager who simultaneously has the potential to be a superior performing executive. And it explains, in part, why some leaders plateau despite early success.

5. Motivation to be a leader

People with leadership potential find the role of a leader interesting and the work of leading motivating and fun. Leadership becomes progressively more difficult at every level, and the demands upon time and energy increase. People with less leadership potential typically cite the perks of the role (title, pay, prestige) as their primary motives. High-potential leaders, on the other hand, cite the nature of the work as what drives them: the opportunity to make a difference, to have a positive impact on their coworkers and organization and to have a greater area of responsibility.

6. Aptitude for logic and reasoning

Call it capacity, mental bandwidth or logic and reasoning, high-performing leaders have considerable cognitive ability. They are effective analytical and conceptual thinkers. They are astute at spotting patterns or trends in data that others miss. And they solve problems with aplomb, at first individually, and then as leaders, by marshaling and focusing resources on the right challenges.

But there is a subtle trap here: a person’s role changes from being the primary problem solver to ensuring that the problem gets solved. Leaders who cannot shift out of individual problem-solving mode and into the job of coaching and mentoring others to analyze problems will struggle beyond midlevel leadership roles.

7. Managed derailment risk

A perennial business magazine cover topic is the high-level leader who self-destructs, sometimes ruining just his or her career, but other times crippling the entire organization. Careful assessment of an individual’s derailment risk is crucial before moving him or her into a mission-critical role.

Derailers get amplified for a few reasons: 1) the strengths that propel leaders to the top often have corollary weaknesses; and 2) increased demands and higher expectations yield more focused scrutiny. Derailers undermine trust in and willingness to follow a leader and are, therefore, considerably more damaging.

In seven different, measurable ways, high-potential employees are indicating their ability to become high-performing leaders. It’s up to organizations to pay attention to the signs, and which way they are pointing.

Adapted from a white paper by Bruce Sevy, Vicki Swisher and J. Evelyn Orr, Korn Ferry Institute. Read the full white paper.