Photo by Tommy Lisbin

Just this week I have been thinking about our Company’s future. We are almost 36 years old and have wonderful leaders at every level of our company. Even so, we are trying to develop even more leadership capacity because we know we need to change – and only effective leaders can lead change.

As we look to build leadership capacity, I wonder what traits we should look for in people who have the “potential” to be our change leaders?

Four Traits that Predict Success. In the December issue of Harvard Business Review I read an article titled Turning Potential into Success that really helped me think about this question. In the article I first learned about the eight competencies effective senior business leaders need. What really caught my attention were how four personal traits – curiosity, insight, engagement, determination – can “predict” how leaders may excel or not in each of the eight competencies.

Before we explore these four traits in our candidates, however, we first want to try to confirm the candidate has “the right motivation.” The authors write, “This generally means a fierce commitment to excel in the pursuit of big, collective goals but, to a great extent, (motivation) is contextual. For example, the leaders of a large charity and of an investment bank will need different kinds of motivation.” Assessing motivation can be very subjective so we will get input from several senior people before we make a major talent decision.

To understand the four traits better, I also read principal author Claudio Fernandez-Araoz’s prior HBR article 21st Century Talent Spotting, which explored how we might look for these traits to measure leadership “potential” when we select people for greater leadership responsibilities. First, here are the four traits.

Curiosity – A desire to seek out new information, knowledge, experience, and, most importantly, objective and candid feedback.

Insight – The ability to process and make sense of information that especially uncovers new opportunities.

Engagement – Often a natural intuition to persuade and connect people to embrace a vision or goal.

Determination – A special desire to push forward and achieve difficult goals that present difficult challenges and to bounce back easily from adversity and failure.

While very few people are strong in ALL these traits, leaders who have potential usually excel in two or more and are above average on the others. Most small and mid-sized companies like ours cannot afford to hire large consulting firms to complete leadership trait assessments, but we can (1) study a candidate’s performance history and (2) ask more in-depth interview questions to uncover personal stories that give us a better idea of her or his potential.

Here are two of my candidate questions for each trait that might help get us started.

Curiosity – (a) Tell us about a recent situation that inspired you to do more research and then take action and what was the result? (b) How do you go about getting feedback from others? What was the most meaningful feedback you received?

Insight – (a) Can you think of a situation when you and your team were flooded with information and you successfully identified a key factor or two for the team to focus on? (b) Given what you know about our business, can you think of a business opportunity for us to pursue that we haven’t identified?

Engagement – (a) Share with us a time you successfully persuaded a variety of people to get behind one particular goal or vision you developed and what the result was? (b) What methods do you use to connect people with different backgrounds and personalities?

Determination – (a) Tell us your greatest success involving the most challenges? (b) Share with us your toughest adversity and how you bounced back from it?

One strong suggestion Fernandez-Araoz’s recommends for leaders with “potential” is to give them stretch assignments. In his article he quotes Jonathan Harvey, a top HR executive at ANZ, an Australian bank that operates in 33 countries. Harvey says, “When it comes to developing executives for future leadership assignments, we’re constantly striving to find the optimal level of discomfort in the next role or project, because that’s where the most learning happens. We don’t want people to be stretched beyond their limits. But we want well-rounded, values-focused leaders who see the world through a wide-angle lens, and the right stretch assignments are what helps people get there.”

Closing Thought on Motivation. Since we must remember to always go back to one’s motivation, I am reminded of a great quote from Roger Staubach, my favorite football player when I was younger. Staubach once said, “There are no traffic jams along the extra mile.”

I think we might ask potential leaders about the last time she or he went the extra mile and what happened – that answer could make all the difference.