It is a fundamental quandary in any organization.
Someday, the current leaders won’t be there and someone else will need to fill their shoes. It might not be soon, or it might be very urgent due to demographics, turnover or organizational growth. Whatever the reason, the question needs to be posed and answered – who are our future leaders?
In our work with leaders and organizations, this question gets asked often – and most often our help is required in creating processes and development tools to help people successfully grow into leadership roles once they have been identified. Those “how” steps are important but can only be implemented once the “who” has been identified.
So what should we look for and how should we pick future leaders?
Let’s start with what not to do.
Most people pick future leaders by looking at their most technically proficient person doing the current work – they pick the best sales person to be the sales manager, the best accountant to head the accounting group or the most productive person on the crew to supervise the production crew.
While this happens frequently, and can work out, there are at least two major flaws in this approach:
- The skills required to be good at a job are not the same skills required to lead people doing that work.
- If you move someone from where they are excellent to where they may not be, you are sacrificing the work output that that high performer provided in their previous role.
If our best current performer isn’t who we should automatically pick, who should we pick instead?
It might be that top performer you would have selected before you read this article, but if so, I hope it will be for some additional reasons. Here is what I would look for, both in current activities at work, outside of work, and through conversations with people:
Interest and Desire. There are lots of people who seem to have the raw materials to lead, but aren’t really interested. They like being a salesperson; they like being in the field; they like doing IT projects – in other words they love their current work. The role of leader requires a change in perspective and a change in work routine. Make sure the people you see as future leaders like the picture you see. If not, moving them into leadership will likely be painful for everyone.
A Mindset of Learning. The role of leader requires new skills and a willingness to live with shades of gray and ambiguity. No one moves into a leadership role without needing to learn a lot (and for a long time). If you are looking for people to move into supervisory and leadership roles, look for people who are willing to learn – which is best seen by how much they are already learning in their current role.
Healthy Humility. The best leaders learn how to support their team, allow the team to shine when successful, and take the blame personally when things don’t go so well. Not everyone can take this humble approach easily or naturally, yet it is a characteristic of great leaders. Recognize too that when you promote someone from a job they were great at to one that will be new to them, humility will be needed early and often if they are going to succeed.
A Positive Attitude. Face it. Attitude is contagious, and the attitude and outlook of a leader is most contagious of all. If you want a team of Don and Debbie downers, promote someone with a negative attitude – but it is likely that is what you will get. Everyone I talk to wants to have teams that are positive, upbeat and with a can do attitude. That attitude always starts with (and is reinforced by) the leader.
Integrity. This list wouldn’t be complete without this critical element. We need leaders who are honest, trustworthy and of high character. As you look at future leaders, don’t get enamored by skills and potential and miss this critical element. Organizational horror stories often start when this trait has been missed or overlooked.
While there are many traits that you might have thought about including on this list, chances are all of those other things are skills that can be learned. And you can teach people the skills they need to be successful. But those skills can’t (or won’t) be learned, or applied properly and effectively unless the foundation listed above is in place first.
You might consider other factors related to the style and approach of people and how it will match and mesh with the culture of your organization, but even some of those things can be adjusted by the leader, if the expectations for success are made clear early.
It is important to note that my belief and philosophy is that everyone has the potential – the raw materials – to become an effective leader. Potential however, is only the start. It takes a decision, discipline and the right mindset to hone and use that potential to create the skills necessary to effectively lead others.
I hope that this list provides guidance to you and others in your organization – or at least provides input for a discussion that leads to creating your own list of criteria for identifying future leaders in your organization.