Assessing Leadership Potential

November 2, 2015 Seonaid Charlesworth

assessing potentialDo you naturally recognize potential in others?  Potential is hard to spot, because it’s the capacity for someone to make a bigger contribution in the future.  Most of us think we can identify potential in others.  But research suggests our predictions of how far someone will go are no better than chance.

Our brain naturally reduces complex information to its simplest form.  It’s called black and white thinking.  It’s how we make decisions.  And it can cause us to overlook potential in people. 

When you make a decision, your brain sifts through the data and reduces it so you can make a choice—yes or no.  High potential or not.  But the brain can work too quickly, and important data slips through the cracks. 

Here are just a few common mistakes we make when we’re deciding if someone has potential:

  • We assume people who speak quickly are more intelligent
  • We judge beautiful people as more capable
  • We see young-looking people as less credible

None of this is true.  And these mistakes and others cause you to overlook potential in others.

Here’s a story of potential that went undiscovered, even when the data was right in front of the CEO’s face.

The Board and CEO had to decide on the next successor to the CEO.  They each had their own views of the internal candidates.  So, they got an objective assessment of the leadership potential of their internal candidates. 

I met with the Board and CEO to understand the leadership challenges facing the next CEO.  We mapped these challenges to the required leadership skills, characteristics, and abilities.  Then we assessed their five senior executives using simulations, ability tests, and a personality inventory.  Out of all this information, we were able to show the assets and liabilities of each candidate.  And we could benchmark them against other senior leaders in North America.

What surprised the CEO were the very strong results of one of his VPs, Tom.  Tom was a leader the CEO had written off.  In his first year, Tom had failed to live up to the CEO’s expectations.  He was a leader who had an MBA from a top US school, years of corporate experience, but he had accepted a role that didn’t match his talent.  The CEO judged some early missteps as Tom’s lack of talent, and he ended up on the bench, where he stayed and played it small.

When I shared the results of the assessments, the CEO looked at them thoughtfully and said, “This can’t be right, he’s just not that good”.  I went through all the results, showing that Tom’s abilities were actually stronger than he showed at work.  I suggested he was in the wrong role, which masked his true potential. 

Tom had real CEO potential, and I had the data to back it up.  Not only that, he really wanted to become CEO one day.  He had structured his life to support him making the sacrifices required for the top job.  Despite the results, the CEO said “I see the accuracy in the other assessments, but not this one.  The Board won’t have confidence in the assessments, when they see Tom’s results.” 

The CEO took forward the results of a select handful of senior leaders as CEO candidates to show the Board.  Tom’s was not among them.  A year later, Tom left.

How did this bright, thoughtful CEO overlook Tom’s potential? 

These are five reasons that can cause all of us to overlook potential in people:

  1. It’s hard to be wrong about someone.  It took 10 years of evidence for us to change our minds about Bill Cosby and Lance Armstrong.  How much harder it is to change our minds about the people we know really well?
  2. We interpret how someone acts to match our first impression.  If an underperformer is late for work, we see it as another example of lack of commitment.  If a superstar is late, we assume she was working late last night. We are constantly writing the story behind people’s behavior.
  3. We assume past behavior predicts future behavior.  It does not.  Past behavior only predicts future behavior in the same situation.  Lots of people with potential go undiscovered, because they haven’t been in the situations where they can shine.
  4. We react to people based on how they make us feel about ourselves.   We are drawn to people who make us feel good.   We fall for people who are charismatic, self-confident and exciting, even when these things have nothing to do with leadership potential.
  5. Once we commit to someone, it’s hard to disengage.  It’s so much harder to be identified as a high potential than to stay a high potential.  Once we start investing in someone, we’re less likely to shift our assessment to someone else.

Black-and-white thinking is a natural mistake our brains make without us realizing it.  The risk for leaders is that making this mistake reduces the world to what we already know, rather than what’s really out there.  Doing so limits growth in our companies and our people.  We need to look more carefully at people, with less attachment to our point of view and more curiosity of the possibility that lies within them.

In my next blog, I’ll share the antidote to black-and-white thinking.

About the Author

Seonaid Charlesworth

Seonaid Charlesworth, Ph.D., is Senior Vice President of Succession and Assessment at LHH Knightsbridge. An expert in industrial psychology, she advises Boards and CEOs on C-level succession. She has designed succession and assessment programs for Fortune 100 companies, public utilities and government agencies in Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Italy, and Brazil.

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