Gazing at the Stars


By John Milsom

Identifying and developing individuals with the potential to lead is crucial to success in any organisation. Growing future leaders has however proved an enduring challenge. This article draws together emerging themes within the area, and explains how to implement a successful high-potential programme.

Identifying Potential

Most organisations use Leadership Frameworks within their Talent Management processes. Such frameworks often span several different organisational levels, and this breadth can limit their effectiveness. Attempting to use the full framework to evaluate whether an individual will make a good leader can therefore be too broad-brush and inaccurate. What is required is a more refined framework – measuring only those characteristics that truly predict. Fortunately, when it comes to leadership capability, research shows there is a small set of powerful indicators.

The Characteristics of Potential

Five clusters consistently emerge as most important:

  • Interpersonal Effectiveness – Essentially this dimension is underpinned by an individual’s emotional intelligence. It relates to their self-awareness, their ability to manage their impact upon others, as well as emotional resilience, integrity and honesty. Strength here provides the foundations for building powerful relationships, as well as leading, motivating and inspiring others.
  • Change Orientation – An individual’s comfort within fluid and changeable situations, their appetite for seeking out new ideas and their willingness to change their own behaviour as a result of feedback. Essentially, this is about openness to learning from stretching experiences. This quality provides the foundation for key leadership competencies such as flexibility and transformational leadership.
  • Reasoning Ability – The ability to process complex information accurately, and to quickly form a holistic picture, simplifying and making sense of abstract data.
  • Drive – The passion and motivation to lead personal and organisational success. This dimension encompasses an individual’s willingness to expose him/herself to risk of failure and to make personal sacrifices in order to be successful. It correlates with energy, and tenacity.
  • Functional and Technical Knowledge – having a sound technical specialism that is strategically imperative to the organisation is a good predictor of potential in certain sectors, industries, organisations, functions and roles.

Measuring Potential

Evaluating future leaders against the above Characteristics of Potential is a good place to start. Sound psychometric tools combined with robust interviewing techniques provide the most effective way of tapping these five factors. Ability tests and personality questionnaires can be used in conjunction with structured interviews, and these are often included within assessment centres or 1:1 Executive assessments. Other tools such as observed business simulations and in-depth behavioural interviews can provide an unrivalled opportunity to test participants in a variety of situations under controlled conditions. Good exercises will include opportunities to reliably benchmark candidates. Structured scoring processes backed up by well-trained expert observers add rigour and fairness to the process. Whatever the precise process used, the key is to establish not only the person’s profile of strengths and development areas, but also the reasons why they have developed in this way. This enables us to predict how they will respond to learning opportunities in the future.

Just measuring the above five factors however, whilst absolutely essential, is totally insufficient. A robust measure of potential also needs to take into account the person’s current performance, and also their work experience to date, as the latter serves to amplify (or constrain) the realisation of potential.

Current performance data can be gained by looking at existing appraisal forms, results against KPIs, and manager feedback. Sometimes, however, it can be more difficult than one might imagine to obtain fair, objective current performance data, so other tools can be deployed including the assessment centres or 1:1 Executive assessments described above. 360 degree questionnaires can also play a useful role in capturing insights from colleagues and direct reports.

The person’s work experience to date, and the sets of experience they need in the future to realise their potential, is an area too often neglected. What type and scale of leadership situations has this individual experienced, and how did he/she respond to them? An appreciation of their career journey, and the events and situations they have been exposed to, is crucial in understanding the context in which their behaviour has developed. This can be measured by asking them to produce a detailed CV or to complete a work-history pro-forma. They can be encouraged to highlight particularly challenging or developmental situations they have faced. Then back this up with an interview process, where the assessor probes what the individual has seen, what development they have received and what knowledge and skills they have picked up from these experiences.

Top Tips

If you are thinking of introducing a project to identify and develop leadership potential, these points should help:

  1. How much do the key stakeholders in your organisation recognise this as a critical business imperative? If there is little shared understanding of its importance, build the business case by linking this initiative to the core business strategy and goals. Case studies of organisations that do this well can help build support.
  2. Select a reliable partner to work with you in measuring your people’s potential. This partner must not only reach accurate judgements, but must do so in a sensitive, constructive and inclusive way, so that your most valuable employees are energised by the process – excited about developing themselves into tomorrow’s leaders. We at Wickland Westcott excel in this type of work.
  3. Think carefully about whether you will make public (within the organisation) those people who are high potentials and (therefore, inevitably) those people who are not. This area needs careful handling and again a competent assessment /development partner will be able to guide you in handling this issue.
  4. Ensure you have budget to support the development and growth of those identified with potential. Dependent on your timeframes, you may find you have to fast-track those where there is a critical business need.
  5. Ensure that, as far as is possible, the development solutions you provide to your high-potentials are on-the-job real-time projects that expose them to current, critical business issues. Remember, the right experience helps convert potential into reality.
  6. From the outset, measure the results. Monitor the high-potentials as they progress through the business and seek to evaluate the return on the money invested in them.

Signup to our Newsletter

By signing up to our newsletter, you are agreeing to receive monthly marketing emails containing thought leadership, event invitations and other industry insights. You can unsubscribe or change your preferences at any time. View our privacy policy for more information.

* indicates required