13 Ways to Identify and Cultivate Future Leaders

Pinpointing people with leadership potential is a crucial talent management responsibility. After all, your company’s long-term success depends upon the ability to identify future leaders and prepare them to steer your team in the right direction. But this task is easier said than done. So it helps to consider how other organizations approach this process.

Recently, we asked members of our community to answer this question:

“How Do You Identify and Cultivate Future Leaders?”

In response, 13 experienced coaches, business managers and HR professionals shared their best advice. From nominating employees for leadership growth to a three-step succession planning process, these ideas provide a useful roadmap for organizations everywhere:

  • Nominate Employees for Leadership Growth
  • Cultivate Leaders with Authentic Values
  • Leverage Assessments and Succession Planning
  • Test the Limits
  • Let Mentorship Unlock Natural Leadership
  • Incorporate Employee Resource Groups
  • Focus on Emotional Intelligence
  • Seek Initiative and Ambition
  • Develop Your Own Character First
  • Invest in Development Programs for Underrepresented Groups
  • Support Growth with Personal Insight
  • Recognize Traits That Distinguish Potential Leaders
  • Take a Three-Step Approach to Succession Planning

13 Ways to Identify and Develop Future Leaders

1. Nominate Employees for Leadership Growth

The best way to identify potential leaders is to let current supervisors or managers nominate employees for development opportunities, such as fellowship programs or mentorship. Providing formal or informal coaching, mentoring, and training gives future leaders a chance to connect with established leaders, gain perspective, and practice the skills necessary for success.

A fellowship program I developed for one organization led to a 20% improvement in frontline worker retention at the same time 80% of participants received promotions. This program was particularly successful because it offered in-depth, job-specific training, alongside focused leadership coaching and practice opportunities.

For organizations with a limited budget or resources, offering monthly group coaching for a cohort of high potentials can significantly enhance their skills and confidence.

Chris Wong, Owner, Executive Coach, Leadership Potential

2. Cultivate Leaders with Authentic Values

It’s essential to identify people who are in touch with their core values and know when to trust their instincts. It’s not an easy task, yet these types of people tend to excel at authentic leadership and are best equipped to meet unique and unprecedented challenges head-on.

I recall coaching a new CEO during the early stages of the pandemic. With all the uncertainty during that timeframe, external advice often fell short. But through our work together, she reconnected with her core values, drawing upon her experience and internal wisdom to lead her company through those difficult times.

Authentic leaders know themselves and can find that delicate equilibrium between self-reliance and willingness to learn from others. Because this path is genuine, it resonates with the leader’s values as well as the needs of their team. And ultimately, it is more impactful.

Joanne Jastatt, Leadership Coach, Jastatt Coaching

3. Leverage Assessments and Succession Planning

Putting a succession plan in place that leverages the DISC assessment model is a highly effective way to identify and nurture potential leaders.

A succession plan helps ensure business continuity. Also, in partnership with HR leaders, it helps identify future leaders with a fair, consistent process.

The DISC assessment model is a popular leadership assessment model based on four behavioral style categories — Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness. It is useful in developing promising people for leadership roles because it helps organizations determine how each style plays out in a leadership capacity,

No particular style is best for leadership success, as evidenced by the diverse styles of well-known CEOs like Gates, Buffett, Winfrey, and Bezos. Each style brings unique strengths as well as areas for growth. Both are critical in understanding leadership potential.

Ayanna E. Jackson, Career and Leadership Coach, AEJ Consulting

4. Test the Limits

We place new hires in demanding situations from the start — observing how they react to pressure, how they adapt to change, and how they approach innovation. This quickly uncovers individual work styles, problem-solving abilities, and leadership potential. Our assessment focuses on traits like resilience, creativity, and strategic thinking — all vital for future leaders.

Capability and capacity are particularly important to us. For example, we recently noticed one of our employees had extra capacity. She wasn’t being challenged enough. So, we moved her to a complex project that tested her limits. This tested her capacity. And given this new level of healthy stress, her capabilities quickly grew. Eventually, her capacity expanded again, as well.

Her ability to handle this challenge exceptionally well demonstrated her latent leadership qualities. This approach — real-world testing and observing — is our primary tool for spotting and cultivating leadership talent.

Michael Morgan, Managing Director, Medallion Partners

5. Let Mentorship Unlock Natural Leadership

As a manager and leader, I’ve noticed certain behaviors that indicate leadership potential. For instance, do you genuinely care about your work and your impact on others? How collaborative and innovative are you? Are you willing to take the initiative and assume responsibility?

I recall a team member who was highly empathetic with patients and colleagues alike. He had a positive attitude and was consistently willing to go above and beyond.

To help him unlock his natural leadership potential, I mentored him to enhance his soft skills and people skills. He learned how to recognize and manage his emotions. He began leading team meetings and training new hires. And he became an effective communicator who understands the human experience.

As a result of his growth, he was promoted to a lead position. Over time, he worked his way up the management ranks, inspiring and empowering others along the way. I was lucky to witness his growth and transformation journey.

Angilie Kapoor, Leadership Coach and Founder, Oversight Global, LLC

6. Incorporate Employee Resource Groups

Some of the best resources for talent development are Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). These groups build strong team bonds that can turn employees into highly trusted future leaders. In addition, members learn skills that help them listen, support, and advocate for themselves and others.

Often, employees in these groups naturally rise into leadership roles that give them a taste of what a future in leadership looks like. And because these ERGs are designed to foster diversity, members have the kind of values to become well-rounded leaders with unique voices and perspectives.

Robert Kaskel, Chief People Officer, Checkr

7. Focus on Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is key in shaping potential leaders. Specifically, you’ll want to develop a future leader’s ability to perceive, understand, and manage emotions, in themselves as well as others.

By nurturing these skills, leaders can better navigate complex social situations and make better-informed decisions. In practice, enhanced emotional intelligence fosters empathetic leadership, which, in turn, cultivates a more engaged and motivated team.

When training leaders, I often integrate activities like role-playing and reflective journaling to deepen their understanding. The goal is to develop leaders who excel both in strategy and operations, as well as in creating a supportive and inclusive work environment.

Bayu Prihandito, Certified Psychology Expert, Life Coach, Founder, Life Architekture

8. Seek Initiative and Ambition

The best way to identify potential leaders is to seek out individuals who take initiative — those who come to you with solutions and seek opportunities to learn and grow. High-potential leaders are motivated, self-aware, and have a clear vision of their career goals and ambitions.

To develop these individuals, you need to provide meaningful learning opportunities that align with their interests and goals, and support them with appropriate mentoring and coaching.

You will want to understand an individual’s strengths, growth needs, and long-term professional goals. It is essential to provide them with stretch assignments, enroll them in leadership development programs, offer job shadowing, and pair them with mentors they want to emulate. This may mean encouraging a promising individual to apply for a new role, so they can learn and grow into the future leader they aspire to be.

Christina G. Hall, Career and Leadership Coach, CGH Careers, LLC

9. Develop Your Own Character First

One key to identifying and nurturing potential leaders is to first develop your own character and leadership potential. You can’t give others something you do not have. Nor can you spot leadership potential if you haven’t internalized the qualities you’re seeking.

Unfortunately, most organizations choose talent based on competency (what you can do). But they miss the importance of character (who you are). Any leader, HR professional, or talent development coach must focus first on self-development (in terms of character growth). The next priority is to ensure that others in your organization are also on a consistent growth plan.

You cannot grow an organization until you grow its people. And you cannot grow people unless their leaders are also growing. When leaders and HR professionals are actively growing, they’re better equipped to spot and nurture leadership potential in others.

Ria Story, Author, Speaker, Leadership Coach, Top Story Leadership

10. Invest in Development Programs for Underrepresented Groups

A formal mentorship program is a fabulous way to identify potential leaders and nurture their growth.

From a DEIB perspective, we know folks from historically excluded and underrepresented groups (URGs) report less access to mentorships. Also, when formal mentorship programs don’t exist between junior employees and leadership, informal mentoring relationships tend to include people who share common traits, including identities like race, gender, and disability status.

As a result, many talented potential future leaders are left out of important developmental relationships. So by investing in an intentional mentorship program focused on URGs, organizations can tap into a larger pool of future leaders who might otherwise go overlooked.

Sofie Leon, DEI Consultant Manager, Peoplism

11. Support Growth with Personal Insight

It’s crucial to support the growth and development of future leaders through opportunities to clarify their purpose, strengths, and personality style. This makes it possible to understand their hopes, challenges, and motivations.

One of my clients is a talented scientific leader who has been with the same company for 20 years. He exemplifies great leadership — people don’t leave his group for other jobs.

He explains, “My mission is to model resilience, treat employees well, and continuously support their career development. They could easily find another job, but strong connection, trust, and great learning opportunities build incredible engagement. People don’t want to leave.”

Beth Kennedy, Leadership Coach, TEDx Speaker and Trainer, Benatti Leadership Development

12. Recognize Traits That Distinguish Potential Leaders

When delivering leadership development programs, I look for talent with traits such as engagement, interest, and curiosity. Strong contenders ask questions and share insightful remarks. They’re willing to take risks and make mistakes.

But the most definitive quality is the drive to support others so they can rise. These individuals cultivate more collaborative, inclusive cultures.

I share this information with organizations so they can tailor learning opportunities to each individual’s stage in their leadership journey. For example, assigning special projects or challenging tasks helps people develop specific skills, feedback helps them make adjustments as needed, and praise reinforces desired behavior.

It’s a win-win scenario when organizations co-create development roadmaps with potential leaders.

Carolina Caro, DEI Consultant, Leadership Coach, Speaker, Facilitator, Carolina Caro LLC

13. Take a Three-Step Approach to Succession Planning

Succession planning is crucial to successful leadership in any organization, big or small, private or public. Identifying and nurturing potential leaders involves three essential steps.

1. Build a process to identify leadership potential. Tools such as psychometric personality profiling and aptitude tests are commonly used during recruitment but should also be part of continuous personal development for team members.

Leaders should identify individuals who demonstrate creative problem-solving, high engagement with ambition, and initiative. Psychometric personality profiling helps understand purpose, values, and drivers, while aptitude testing measures critical thinking potential and development areas.

In addition, 360-degree feedback from peers and other managers uncovers specific development areas unique to the organization. This combination of tools offers invaluable insight into key priorities and helps define a roadmap for skills development.

2, Effective mentoring. This helps those with leadership potential take on new tasks and challenges in an environment where they can learn from mistakes along with constructive support and feedback. They should also work with experienced managers to gain exposure to diverse leadership perspectives and approaches.

3. Continuous learning, progress tracking, and impact measurement. Our company has identified two future leaders. We’ve tested them, identified development areas, and enrolled them in several formal and informal courses to enhance their skills.

Critical thinking and reflection are paramount. Over the last year, we’ve exposed our potential leaders to more management problems. As a result, their ability to make decisions, reflect upon their choices, and consider potential alternatives has improved. We know because we track, measure, and assess the impact of their decisions.

Rob Scott, Managing Director, Aaron Wallis Sales Recruitment


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