During a recent workshop, one of the participants asked me how they could do a better job identifying prospective (I prefer the term: emerging) leaders in their organization. It’s a great question and one that merits consideration by every leader in every organization. My short answer is: I look at individuals and strive to assess where they are at with three lenses of awareness: personal, people, and situational. I do this through regular observation and conversation over an extended period and in a variety of different settings.

My Discomfort with Traditional Approaches for Identifying Emerging Leaders:

In my executive management life, I struggled with the groupthink laden approaches I saw for identifying so-called high-potentials and emerging leaders. These were most often thinly veiled political discussions wrapped in the cloak of some noble calling: find those who will lead us in the future. Unarguably, the sessions identified some rising stars in our organization; however, when it came to uncovering emerging leaders, the results were weak.

An alternative and I believe much more effective approach emerged over time as I worked with my direct managers to find ways to strengthen our effectiveness identifying and developing emerging leaders. While there are many factors involved in this important work, our group developed a process and vocabulary around the three lenses of awareness: personal, people, and situational. We also created some key ground rules for navigating this process, with emphasis on observation and continuous coaching.

Additionally, we worked hard to challenge ourselves and invite others to challenge our perspectives in an effort to minimize the impact of our own biases and the natural tendency toward groupthink that emerges in these situations.

The Three Lenses of Emerging Leader Identification:

1. Personal Awareness

With a nod to the great and growing body of work on emotional intelligence, we distilled assessing personal (and people) awareness to a set of critical questions to guide our observation and coaching work. Personal awareness focuses on observing how attuned an individual is to his/her leadership maturity and need for coaching and development. Our core questions for this category included:

  • Is the individual seemingly aware of strengths and gaps?
  • Is the individual receptive to all forms of feedback and feed-forward and does the individual take action based on this input?
  • Is the individual continuously striving to improve performance based on daily experiences in the workplace?
  • When it comes to leadership, is this person able to articulate an authentic and not politically correct answer on why he/she wants to lead?
  • Does the individual project clear, consistent values understood by others?

2. People Awareness:

Using this lens, we worked to observe and assess an individual’s approach to and effectiveness engaging with all levels and layers of coworkers. We were interested in observing how well an individual performed with peers, senior managers and executives and others in more entry-level roles. Key questions included:

  • How confidently does the individual engage with coworkers at all levels of the organization?
  • How effectively does the individual listen to others?
  • How empathetic is the individual with the challenges and work of others?
  • How effectively does the individual work to create positive outcomes for all parties?
  • How effective is the individual in garnering support for individual or group initiatives?
  • How does the individual perform for informal leadership situations?
  • How well does the individual lead peers? Boss?
  • Do people perceive they are respected by this individual? (We asked.)

3. Situational Awareness:

This lens created a good deal of debate on our team. Ultimately, it focused on how quickly and effectively an individual assimilated problems and developed ideas or approaches to navigate challenges. It also looked at a broader set of critical and strategic thinking as well as decision-making skills. Key questions included:

How well does the individual understand his/her impact on the group and organizational goals?

  • Does the individual exhibit awareness of the organization’s broader strategies?
  • Does the individual connect his/her work to individual, group, and organizational goals.
  • How quickly does the individual recognize emerging problems and motivate corresponding actions?
  • Does the individual use a deliberate process for evaluating and making decisions?
  • Is the individual able to positively influence group decision-making?
  • Does the individual look forward in time to emerging challenges and opportunities?
  • Does the individual read group dynamics effectively and adjust behaviors to improve group performance.
  • Is the individual able to contribute ideas to strengthen or change group goals or strategies?

9 Ground Rules for Using the Three Lenses Approach

As mentioned, we were concerned about introducing our own biases and version of groupthink into this process, so, we created some rules and tools to help us.

  1. The primary source of data must be based on personal observation over time.
  2. Every member of the management group is accountable for observing across all functions. (I wanted to avoid silo only observations and biases here.)
  3. Our dialog around individuals must be observed, behavioral, and business-focused. If you cannot incorporate all three of these ingredients in your observations, don’t bother mentioning it.
  4. Every member of the management group will maintain a journal for capturing observations.
  5. The observations must be translated into timely, quality feedback, feed-forward, and coaching discussions. This includes positive feedback.
  6. Every individual in our broader organization must be aware of this observation and coaching process. We share the questions with all employees, so they are aware of how we as management are talking about emerging leaders.
  7. Training and developmental assignments are tailored to the individual based on the observations and coaching discussions.
  8. When discussing the potential advancement or promotion of an individual, or, in comparing/contrasting the readiness for promotion of one individual versus another, we will involve a neutral third-party to challenge our assumptions.
  9. This work is never done.

Limitations Yes, But 7 Reasons Why it Works:

I’ve yet to find a perfect approach for identifying and developing emerging leaders, yet this one generated positive results because it offers some powerful benefits.

  1. The questions effectively define the accountabilities and even values we as management strive to exhibit and reinforce in our organization.
  2. Most of the smoke-filled-room dealings about people and promotions are removed from the culture. Decisions are made, and while not everyone might agree on the choice, they understand the basis for the decision.
  3. As a manager of managers, this approach allows you to strengthen individual and collective performance for the critical issue of emerging leader identification and development. Additionally, you engage your managers in a clear and consistent process.
  4. You institutionalize the work of coaching and development across your group! This work happens every single day as it should.
  5. You raise the bar for the broader organization.
  6. You improve your chances of becoming a talent generator for the broader organization.
  7. The good people you work so hard to recruit and support genuinely appreciate the active, challenging process and the opportunity for growth.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The three lenses of personal, people, and situational awareness offer help for a challenging and vital task. For organizations where the processes are lacking or non-existent, this is an easy framework to adopt. Use it in excellent health. Improve upon it. Create your own framework. Just do something to strengthen your effectiveness at identifying and developing emerging leaders. Remember, leaders create leaders.

Art's Signature