Future Leadership Competencies: Identify & Assess Potential Leaders

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Future Leadership Competencies: Identify & Assess Potential Leaders

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Identifying and assessing potential leaders can be difficult. Creating a leadership pipeline requires that you identify employees at all levels of the organization who have high potential for future leadership roles and then develop them. So, what are the competencies and indicators of high potential for which you should watch? How can you identify and assess potential leaders?

Competency refers to the ability to do something well. If your company uses a competency model for various positions, you want to first ensure that employees have the competencies they need to do their current jobs well. If they are not competent in their current jobs, they generally won’t be considered for higher-level positions in the organization. Indicators of high potential are behaviors beyond the basic competencies for a position at any level. Let’s start with competencies.

Recommended training from HRDQ-U

Feeding Your Leadership Pipeline: How to Develop the Next Generation of Leaders

Competencies by Level

Of course, competencies vary by job role and by level – the competencies you seek in a new college hire will be different from those you would expect in someone who is already at a senior management level. Similarly, the competencies required of a sales representative will be different from those of an engineer. For example, communication skills are important for leaders at all levels because if they cannot express their ideas clearly and succinctly, they will not gain the attention and understanding of their audience at any level. But the requirements for communication skills, both oral and written, will vary by level and be cumulative: 

  • Individual contributors typically have to communicate with their managers and their work groups or teams.  Depending on their job role, they may also have to communicate with customers.
  • First-level managers must be able to communicate well with their work groups, with individual employees, and with their managers and their managers’ workgroups.
  • A senior manager may have to communicate with a larger group of employees. For example, an engineering manager may have to communicate with the entire population of engineers under their umbrella. A senior engineering manager may also have to communicate with the vice president of engineering and sometimes present proposals to the company’s executive committee.
  • A C-level officer will have to communicate with the entire organization, the CEO, his or her peers, and sometimes with the board of directors.
  • A CEO will have to communicate with the entire company population, with customers, with the board of directors, and sometimes with the press and stockholders.


Not all competencies should carry equal weight in your deliberations. Along with the general competencies for various job roles, you may want to focus on your company’s key competencies. If your company focuses on great customer service, for example, you may want to focus on customer-service-related competencies. Similarly, if your company’s progress is focused on rapid innovation, this would suggest a greater emphasis on creativity and innovation competencies.

In considering who you want to place in your leadership pipeline, you also want to watch for indicators of high potential that go beyond basic leadership competencies and job requirements.

Indicators of High Potential

Here are a few ideas for what you should look for as indicators of high potential.

Business Acumen

As an employee climbs the management/leadership ladder, their view of the business must expand beyond their current job responsibilities to the larger picture.  So, besides doing their work proficiently, has the employee shown interest in the larger context of the business? Does the employee work to just get the job done, or does the employee look for ways to optimize the larger business process?


Teamwork is the ability to work with others in a team environment and optimize the work of the team rather than individual job performance.

How well has the employee worked as part of a team? Has the employee stepped up to lead a team? How well has the employee supported other team members? When there was a tight deadline, was the employee willing to step in to help other team members?

Independent and Strategic Thinking

Independent and strategic thinking is the ability to see the larger picture, beyond their own job responsibilities, and work toward improving business processes and results.

How good are the employee’s ideas? Has the employee been able to find new and better, more efficient or more effective, work methods? Has the employee been able to solve their own work-related problems, or are they totally dependent on their manager when something goes wrong? Has the employee demonstrated that they can work with inconsistent, unclear, or contradictory ideas? If the employee has worked on a cross-functional team, how impressed have people from other functions been with their ideas and contributions?


Self-development involves the ability to continue to learn and grow into larger roles.

Does the employee go above and beyond the demands of their role and responsibilities for the good of the organization? Has the employee demonstrated a commitment to their own learning and growth? Does the employee help marginal performers through setting an example and coaching? Does the employee ask, “How can we?” rather than explaining why “We can’t”?


Integrity is being real, honest, and trustworthy.

Does the employee take responsibility for their own errors or tend to blame others when something goes wrong? Does the employee deliver what they promise? Is the employee authentic – neither overstating nor understating their abilities and contributions?

What Do You Do Next?

Once you have identified your high-potential employees and placed them at the appropriate levels within your leadership pipeline, you next must develop them and test them.

While some of your high potentials may be ready right now for a promotion to the next rung of the corporate ladder, most will require development through formal education, coaching, or experiential learning. These development activities should include not just the development of leadership skills but also the development of their business acumen and execution skills to prepare them for their next job.

As they develop the required skills, you need to test them – give them stretch assignments where you can judge whether they are ready for promotion. Remember that even though they had demonstrated the required competencies and shown some indicators of high potential for higher-level positions, some of them won’t succeed at higher levels. It is better to discover this before promoting them than after – as many companies have learned from hard experience, promoting the wrong person not only can destroy that person’s career, but it can also have a strong negative impact on the business.

Dan Tobin
Dan Tobin

Dan Tobin has served as a training director in several high-tech companies and as Vice President of Program Design and Development for the American Management Association. With more than 30 years of experience in the learning and development field, he has given workshops and keynotes on five continents and has consulted with HR and training groups around the world. Dan has written seven well-regarded books on corporate learning strategies, including The Knowledge-Enabled Organization (the first book to discuss the convergence of training and knowledge management), Feeding Your Leadership Pipeline, The AMA Guide to Management Development (co-authored with Margaret Pettingell), and Learn Your Way to Success.

Connect with Dan on LinkedIn.

Recommended Training from HRDQ-U
Feeding Your Leadership Pipeline: How to Develop the Next Generation of Leaders

Gain an action plan for leadership development molded for small to large companies seeking new ways to nurture and develop their next generation of leaders.

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