To promote the best first-time leaders, focus on more than results
Your decisions about who you put in management and leadership roles are some of the most important leadership decisions you’ll ever make. It’s a decision about who you will trust with your most important asset—your people. With so much at stake and riding on the quality of your leaders, what do you look for when you want to promote the best leaders?Many leaders look to their high achievers—the people who are very effective at what they do. The best programmer, the top salesperson, the teacher who consistently helps students overcome obstacles and achieve. Others look for a person’s willingness to speak up, take charge, and “get things done.”Unfortunately, neither high-performance nor a commanding personality are reliable indicators that a person can lead well.Some high-performers are fantastic leaders and others struggle to make the transition. Some outgoing personalities lead well and others don’t. (And some of your quiet folks may amaze you with their ability to bring people together to get things done.)
The Problem with Performance
We’re not saying that a leader’s technical proficiency and expertise doesn’t matter. It does.People need to trust their leader and their competence at work. Being a remarkable example goes a long way.It’s not that dissimilar from how you hire for roles requiring technical competence. You look for competence at the fundamentals, but excellence in their area of expertise matters even more.In the same way, when you’re looking for leaders, you want good performance. But, the number one ability you are looking for is their capacity to lead.One of the biggest mistakes we see leaders make when promoting high-performers to leadership positions is using performance or personality as a surrogate for leadership.
Promote the Best Leaders (even if they haven’t led before)
So how can you tell if someone has the capacity to lead—before they’ve actually led?Start with these foundational characteristics:
- Technical knowledge and expertise and a strong track record of results (they know what they’re doing and command the respect of other up, down, and sideways)
- Integrity (you can count on them to do the right thing consistently)
- Accountability (they do what they say they will— and hold others to a similar standard)
- Vision (they see opportunities where others don’t and can rally their peers around a compelling vision)
- Commitment (they care about the success of the team— beyond their own results)
- Confidence (they are willing and able to stand up for what matters and speak the truth—in a way others can hear)
- Humility (they surround themselves with people who will challenge them and encourage new ideas)
- Note: This confident-humility dynamic includes the ability to use power judiciously.Most employees don’t come to you with all of these characteristics fully developed. In fact, apart from integrity, character, and personal responsibility, the others will always develop over time.This means that you will need to invest in building these traits in your employees and give them opportunities to demonstrate these abilities.Whether you use formal 9 box succession planning or a more informal process, you’ll want to train leadership skills, and then give people a chance to lead. These opportunities reveal leaders and build leadership capacity. You’ll discover who can influence before they have formal power, and who can exercise influence without abusing the privilege.Ad hoc projects, interdepartmental teams, committees, interim-assignments when a supervisor is absent, as well as employee-sponsored initiatives are ample chances for your team to practice their leadership skills.As you evaluate potential (and pitfalls), don’t forget to follow up these assignments with a debrief about what worked, what they learned, and what they would (or could) do differently next time.To promote the best leaders, look for the people who lead where they are and don’t need position power to get things done.