Up until fairly recently, most people subscribed to the idea that good leaders exhibited specific traits, such as charisma and gravitas, that inspired loyalty and hard work. This made earmarking future managers relatively easy: Identify someone with these qualities and you'd find yourself an up-and-comer.
The approach was simple and elegant. The trouble is, it turns out it isn't very effective. How do we know?
"Even at the best organizations, half of the people on the management succession plan don't go on to get the job," says John Sullivan, professor of management at San Francisco State University.
That's a pretty poor batting average and it suggests to Sullivan that these traits aren't a great barometer of leadership ability. In fact, he believes that leaders aren't born but made.
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"There's ample proof that everybody can become a leader, given the opportunity," says Sullivan. And while this may be good news for those of us who have been overlooked by the powers that be, it makes the job of recruiting top-tier managers significantly more challenging.
If your organization is currently experiencing a power vacuum, Sullivan recommends throwing away the old playbook and using the following techniques to help identify potential leaders:
- Measure performance. Don't allow your impressions of someone to dictate your opinions about capabilities. "Someone might be tall, but if he can't dunk, he's no basketball player," says Sullivan. By quantifying performance you can tell how much an employee is producing, which gives you a much clearer picture of abilities.
- Try bonuses instead of performance reviews. Performance appraisals are rarely an accurate reflection of people's performance or potential, because they tend to be colored by the reviewer's subjective opinions, says Sullivan. Bonuses, on the other hand, often bring out an employee's true colors.
- Identify innovators and "benchmarkers." In today's work world, leaders need to do more than command authority, says Sullivan; they need to be innovative, adaptable and curious. To identify potential leaders, look for people who are constantly suggesting new and better ways of doing things, people who keep abreast of innovations and those who measure their work against people they admire.
- Try job rotations. If an employee seems to have stalled out in a current position, don't put him or her on the bench too early. Sullivan recommends doing an "interest inventory." Ask them what else they might be interested in trying and then give them an opportunity to moonlight in a different department. They may flourish.
- Don't overlook the obvious. Just because someone's quiet or mild-mannered doesn't mean they don't possess leadership potential - they may already be exhibiting it without your knowledge. Sullivan suggests looking for employees who are eager to take on increased responsibility and those who tend to inspire confidence and trust in their co-workers.