The Potential to Lead - Part 1 of 3

Framing the Challenge

What is it that defines the potential to lead? And if we could define it, how might we be able to notice it, encourage it, and cultivate it among the early-career professionals in our organizations? On the one hand, I do not believe there are any perfectly knowable answers to these questions. On the other hand, I do believe that we can learn a great deal more about this potential and, based upon that imperfect but practical knowledge, hone our capacity to recognize and develop leadership potential much more effectively than we currently do.

That is the thesis of this three-part series on the potential to lead. In this set of blog posts, I will sketch the outlines of this challenge and a proposed solution to it. Today, we describe the current state of the knowledge and practice, as well as its limitations. In our next blog, we will review some ideas from recent research in leadership and adaptive development that we have drawn from in order to effect a paradigm shift in early-career leadership development.

Conventional Wisdom

Our current state of knowledge and practice will usually contain the seeds of novel possibilities and new trajectories of innovation. With this in mind, I recently spoke with several executive leaders–CHROs, VPs, and SVPs in talent development–people who've been working for years to identify and develop the potential to lead among early-career professionals. I observed a rather strong consensus on the following themes:

  1. We know that it’s not just a linear extension of the technical-functional skill and knowledge to perform as an individual contributor.

  2. We know that it draws upon a capacity to relate well to others in the furtherance of a common purpose that requires collaboration and extra effort.

  3. We know that it manifests as a kind of maturity that involves a shift in focus from oneself and self-interest to the interests and goals of others.

  4. We know that it is often accompanied by increased interest in how the parts of the organization interrelate as a whole to produce results.

  5. We know that it requires a temperament that is not overly reactive or impulsive, that is able to navigate complexity and setbacks, and that conveys confidence.

  6. We know that in today’s increasingly diverse world and talent markets, it must be accompanied by an attunement to and tolerance for differences.

Even this short list is sufficient to indicate that the challenge of identifying the potential to lead and the task of developing early-career leaders requires more than a simplistic reliance on individual performance appraisals. Why is that? Because most important advances in life or career involve nonlinear change. They require the emergence of new capabilities, not simply more of the same.

For that reason, we cannot blindly follow the adage that past performance (behaviors and results) is the best predictor of future performance. Rather, we must look for indicators of a more fundamental, underlying potential in the person to do things that he or she may not have done or needed to do up to this point. And we may need to put them in a situation and present them with challenges that enable us to notice this potential to lead.

Common Practices

Common practices for identifying and developing talent today include competency models, performance appraisals, competency-based developmental assessments, talent reviews, high-potential programs, succession planning, and mentoring. And we know from years of McKinsey survey research that a glaring weakness in most organizations is the active participation of the supervising manager. Therefore, most of this procedural work is designed, managed, and maintained by HR and HRD professionals.

In some organizations HR business partners may succeed in engaging business managers. However, it's been our experience that business managers often approach these processes and procedures in a rather bureaucratic, perfunctory, and rushed manner. Then, when new leadership talent is needed, they may resort to an informal pool of candidates that management already has in mind, largely based upon past performance.  They become the go-to resource, while other remain untested.

Although such a "feeder system" may be better than nothing, it is hardly a way to ensure that all of the potential, not to mention the best potential, of your talent pool is being developed. In fact, there is research that indicates such an informal process often sends signals to the early-career population that the path to advancement is a mystery, or worse, that it relies upon a paternalistic culture of favoritism and exclusion.

Needs for Change

In our next (second) blog, we’ll sketch a proposed solution that is scalable, pragmatic, and promises to get management actively engaged. Then, in our third and final blog in this series, we'll highlight a model for assessing the potential to lead. This assessment strategy is one that ensures practical relevance and actionable pathways of development.

For more information: