Getting the right candidates in the right leadership positions is a huge challenge for any organization, but one that’s worth taking on. Companies with top-tier leadership outperform their competitors by 19%, are more innovative and adaptive, and have lower turnover rates. It’s somewhat surprising, then, that research has shown that companies select candidates who are not a fit for a position about 82% of the time.
Unfortunately, promoting the wrong person can have serious consequences. Dissatisfaction with leadership can lead to higher turnover rates, low morale, and poor collaboration. In the worst case scenario, poor leadership contributes to hostile work environments that make it difficult, if not impossible, for the organization to accomplish its goals.
Given the high stakes, companies should take extra care when making promotion decisions. Here are a few considerations worth keeping in mind when selecting candidates.
Assess Soft Skills
Many organizations make the mistake of emphasizing technical skills over more people-oriented soft skills. While it’s important for any candidate to possess the proper competencies for the position, it’s easy to undervalue their ability to communicate well, effectively resolve differences, and inspire others to accomplish difficult tasks.
For employees who need to work with others and use influencing strategies to gain buy-in, soft skills like active listening and emotional intelligence are critical to success. These are the primary tools for building trust in teams and establishing healthy relationships that make it easier to manage conflict productively and move teams toward collaborative, innovative solutions.
Unfortunately, soft skills are often more difficult to assess than technical competencies. They aren’t always evident on a resume and often require a deeper look into a candidate’s performance. Systematic interviews and style and personality assessments can help evaluate some of these skills. In addition, feedback from the candidate’s colleagues and other stakeholders tends to provide a comprehensive picture of their soft skills competencies.
Evaluate Learning Agility
Moving someone into a new position is a significant change that brings with it a different set of responsibilities and challenges. Even if a candidate possesses the requisite competencies for the job, there will be a learning curve of some kind. Reviewing whether or not someone has adapted to new situations and made an effort to learn new skills in the past is a good way of predicting if they will be successful in their new role.
High-potential candidates generally demonstrate not just a willingness, but an eagerness to learn. They are curious about activities and responsibilities throughout the organization as well as issues related to their own position. Self-motivated learners are eager to receive feedback about their performance so they can identify areas that need improvement. In addition, high-potential employees hold themselves accountable for their own learning and demonstrate an ability to find solutions to problems.
In addition to their desire to learn, they also show a desire to lead. While their current position may not give them much opportunity to demonstrate leadership, they may be effective influencers or have a reputation for personal integrity or credibility that make it easier for them to build a foundation of trust in positions of leadership.
Focus on Results Over Effort
While effort is certainly important, it can sometimes divert attention from overall performance. There is a tendency to reward employees who put in long hours on projects or consistently arrive early for work every day, but the amount of time spent on tasks isn’t necessarily reflective of the quality of the results.
Unfortunately, only about one-in-seven high performing employees turn out to be high-potential leaders. Elevating candidates on the basis of unreliable factors like a habit of working long hours, tenure and experience, or some indeterminate “gut feeling” rarely produces successful outcomes. Many candidates who produce good work may deliver quality results on an individual basis, but if they don’t collaborate effectively within a team context, the overall assessment of their work might be less favorable.
Look at Long-Term Performance
Candidates obviously put their best foot forward during any interview process, but their performance may also show sudden improvements if they know a promotion opportunity exists. If a candidate was not performing well previously or has a consistent history of only meeting the minimum standards of their current position, the odds are quite good that they will revert to their usual habits shortly after taking on a new role.
Looking at performance and behavior over the long-term provides a more comprehensive picture of a candidate’s potential. While this isn’t always possible for less tenured employees, reviewing multiple performance assessments and feedback surveys can help to identify patterns and tendencies. Candidates with an established history of simply “going through the motions” or doing little to improve their skills are unlikely to change their habits after a promotion.
It’s also important to remember that high performance doesn’t necessarily reflect high potential to excel in a new position. Performance is evaluated based on achieving results, but someone’s potential should be assessed on characteristics such as initiative, leadership capacity, and an aspiration to do more. In some cases, providing these employees with a realistic job profile can give them a preview of a position and help them determine whether or not they want to pursue it.
Identifying the best candidates for promotion is a difficult task, but not an impossible one. Good leadership development systems should already have processes in place to identify high-potential candidates and prepare them for leadership positions. Finding and cultivating these aspiring leaders is a critical step for any organization looking to position itself for long-term growth and success.