There can be several different reasons to develop a leadership program. If your objective is to develop a pipeline of leaders ready to step up to executive roles, it is worth the investment of time to consider the potential of those who seem likely contenders. What do you look for?
Jeff Immelt, former CEO of General Electric, recently said that he asked three questions of executive aspirants:
How fast can you learn, how much can you take and how much do you want to give back?
For Immelt, executive potential was a three-legged stool: all three need to be sound.
A leader might be able to make great decisions in uncertain environments (a fast learner) and have a drive to achieve but lack the willingness to make the sacrifices that come with an executive role. Talented people can vary on career orientation.
Immelt’s simple heuristic finds its research foundation in the Dries and Peperman (2012) study How to identify leadership potential: Development and testing of a consensus model. Combining the two, we have a simple but rigorous frame to apply to our pipeline nominations:
- How fast can you learn? The study identifies analytical skills (intellectual curiosity, strategic insight, decision making, and problem solving) and learning agility (willingness to learn, emotional intelligence, and adaptability).
- How much can you take? The study identifies drive (results orientation, perseverance, and dedication).
- How much do you want to give back? The study identifies emergent leadership (motivation to lead, self‐promotion, and stakeholder sensitivity).
The frame is comprehensive, comprising head and heart, as well as intrapersonal (self-awareness and mastery) and contextual factors. Positioning within a set of simple questions that can be readily understood by practicing executives increases the odds of acceptance and traction.
There are valid assessments that consultants commonly apply to measure analytical skills and learning agility, as these are considered one of the best predictors of future leadership performance (Schmidt and Hunter, 2004). There are also assessments of drive and emergent leadership, although less commonly applied. In could be that the motivation to lead, being a heart factor, can really only be understood by asking.
Taking time to invest in a thorough assessment of potential, using both quantitative and qualitative measures, means that the investment in development has the best chance of return. Large variations in ability or career orientation in an identified cohort can mean that a development program lacks the precision necessary to be effective in increasing executive readiness.
This is the first in a three-part series about developing high-potential leaders for executive roles.
Next is Designing your High Potential Development Program.
Dries, N and Pepermans, R. (2012) How to identify leadership potential: Development and testing of a consensus model. Human Resource Management, May–June 2012, Vol. 51, No. 3. Pp. 361–385
Immelt, J. (2021) Masters in Business. podcast. 13 March.
Schmidt, F. L., & Hunter, J. E. (2004). General Mental Ability in the World of Work Occupational Attainment and Job Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 162-173.