What Execs Should Look for in Future Leaders

The pandemic has changed the traditional means of identifying leadership timber. One study identifies what execs should look for—but execs should do some self-searching too.

What makes somebody a leader?

That isn’t always an easy question to answer, and there are some pitfalls to the process of figuring it out—as leadership consultant Shane Feldman told me last week, knowing that somebody has 10 years of experience can speak more to where they were in the past, not the present. Plus, there are skill sets unique to the pandemic era that are worth paying attention to as well. 

In an article last week for CEOWORLD magazine, leadership consultant Dr. Kimberly Janson suggests that leaders need to get out of the habit of using past performance as a metric for leadership potential. Indeed, somebody’s success in a particular area of expertise doesn’t present an obvious picture of leadership potential. “The problem with selecting people who have deep functional expertise is that it often doesn’t translate into great leadership,” Janson wrote. Good performance is eye-catching, “but not in itself worthy of promotion to a leadership role.”

Leaders should work to make sure their capacity for discernment is where it needs to be.

Janson’s research on the subject, summarized in a recent white paper [PDF], suggests that instead of looking at items on a resume, leaders should pay attention to four general traits: intelligence, personality, motivation, and learning agility. That’s all pretty straightforward—it should be obvious that you look for motivation, nontoxic people, and so on. But Janson’s study found that leaders often don’t have any sort of formal process for surfacing leadership traits. And it’s been well-documented that a lack of a process leads to the kinds of biases that miss actual potential and negative traits. Toxicity can be misread as “hard-charging.” Resume accomplishments can be overly weighted as evidence of business intelligence.

So, leaders need to work to proactively surface evidence of those four traits. Formal assessments can be handy for this, Janson advises, but so can more day-to-day tests intelligence in meetings. In conversation, for instance, “make them justify their thinking and points of view so you can watch their thought process.”

Similarly, people who demonstrate learning agility will show it on the job. “They typically outperform peers, learn new information quickly, are adaptable, and have a strong degree of self-awareness,” she wrote. To tease this out, she added, “focus less on their advance degrees and more on whether they continually seek and absorb information.”

I’d add one more wrinkle to this process: Leaders should work to make sure their capacity for discernment is where it needs to be. In the recent Associations Now Deep Dive on the new workplace, I wrote about how leaders can be so eager to return to “normal” that they can be blinkered to what their organizations and their people need now. “We’re incredibly subjective people all the time,” as workplace consultant Tamela Blalock, CAE, told me. “We need to be aware of our preferences and biases.”

In addition, the new workplace requires a lot more communication, in different modes, to understand how their employees are handling hybrid work and other new disruptions. Those kinds of conversations can help identify the kinds of traits that represent good leadership potential, according to Janson. But leaders have to be intentional about having those conversations in the first place. 

What do you practice internally to identify and support rising leaders in your association? Share your experiences in the comments. 

(mikkelwilliam/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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