How to Discover and Cultivate Emerging Leaders in the Workplace

May 25, 2022

Sehr Javed

in BLOG

Learn key strategies for identifying and developing emerging leaders in the workplace, including the challenges to watch out for and tips for building a successful high-potential program.


I recently facilitated a discussion with a group of senior leaders about their business priorities. I asked them, “What key challenges is your business facing?” The group shared an influx of challenges, naming 18 different business priorities, many of which revolved around developing leaders. But can you guess what challenge wasn’t on the list? Even though the company lacked a strategy for finding and developing emerging leaders in the workplace, doing so was not a business priority.

Lack of planning for emerging leaders is a very common situation. Developing future leaders is often left to the future. It’s seen as nice to have, but out of reach in the present. When there are so many priorities today, how can you justify putting resources toward developing leaders for tomorrow? But what will the future of an organization be if there’s no plan to prepare its future leaders?


The Importance of Emerging Leaders in Your Workplace

Contemporary workplaces are characterized by constant change—changes in technology, processes, market forces, customer needs, talent, and leadership. Leaders move up, sideways, leave, and retire. So it’s important to have a healthy pipeline of leaders who are prepared to step into key roles and keep your business on track toward its goals.

There are many reasons to look no further than your own talent pool to identify emerging leaders. Because of their organizational knowledge and relationships, internal candidates are set up for success to make a supported transition and learn a new role more quickly than external candidates. You can count on these emerging leaders to be a good fit and reinforce your core values. We also know that it can be motivating to employees when talent “rises through the ranks” within a company, especially if employees benefit from these career pathways.

Recruiting externally comes with cost and significant challenges, especially in today’s hiring market. With some industries experiencing a “war for talent,” looking outside the business for new leaders may not be a viable option.


Challenges to Identifying Emerging Leaders

Though identifying and promoting emerging leaders from within your organization has many advantages over external recruiting, it can be fraught with challenges:

  • Objective Criteria: HR leaders report that managers usually nominate high-potential talent. This seems intuitive because managers have the best line of sight to their direct reports. However, without clear criteria for identifying high potentials, these nominations are prone to subjective biases. How do you compare one manager’s star performer with another manager’s star performer?
  • Planning: Without forethought, identifying emerging leaders often happens just-in-time when a leadership position becomes available. These future leaders may not get the support and development they need to successfully transition into a leadership role. Research suggests that nearly half of leadership transitions fail. A strategy for high-potential talent management facilitates planning and ensures enough time to set emerging leaders up for success.
  • Transparency: If companies buy into the premise that “everyone is a leader,” they can start off with a very large funnel of potential leaders. So how does the business make decisions to narrow this down to a pool of high potentials? Consider developing a strategy with clear criteria for identifying emerging leaders. With a transparent set of expectations, employees budding to become leaders can start conversations with their managers about their interest in and fit for opportunities.

Potentially Misleading Characteristics of Emerging Leaders

What characteristics should you look for in emerging leaders in the workplace? Though strong in-role performance sounds like an obvious indicator, achievement is not a reliable barometer for leadership potential. We often see technical experts struggling to lead after being promoted to manager. Strong performance as an individual contributor does not guarantee strong performance as a leader.

We also often hear stories about individual contributors being recognized for informal leadership roles they performed in projects or taskforces. While these experiences are a valuable consideration, they should not be the only criteria used to identify emerging leaders. Informal leadership opportunities may not be equally available across an organization or within a team, limiting some individuals from joining the pool.


Characteristics of Emerging Leaders

When you are unable to assess past behavior due to lack of leadership experience, you can consider three areas to predict readiness for a leadership role: how a person is wired (their personality), what they want to do (their motivations), and what they understand about leadership skills (their awareness).

Personality – How are they wired?

It is difficult, and sometimes not possible, to change how someone is wired. So when you’re identifying employees for a first-time leadership role, look for signs of four core characteristics that reveal whether they have the disposition to be successful:

  • Leadership Promise: How do they answer the 10 core leadership questions? Do they have the motivation to lead? Will they enjoy the additional responsibility? Will they enjoy getting work done through others? Are they an enabler? Can they tap into the skills and abilities of others?
  • Development Orientation: How does the individual receive constructive feedback? Can they learn from the past? Are they motivated to improve their own performance and capabilities?
  • Mastery of Complexity: Are they able to make decisions with limited information? Can they adapt to changes? Can they grasp new concepts?
  • Balance of Results and Values: Do they embody the organization’s values? Are they a role model? Are they driven to achieve results?

These personality characteristics set emerging leaders up to manage the challenges and complexity of a leadership transition and position.

Motivations – What do they want?

Before offering an emerging leader that big promotion, it’s important to find out whether they are motivated to take on the challenges and rewards of a leadership position. Do they truly want to be a leader? Or do they perceive it to be the only way to progress their career? Someone who is not motivated to become a leader for the right reasons is unlikely to be successful in the long term, potentially impacting both the team they lead and company performance.

Awareness – What do they understand?

How do you assess leadership capabilities in an employee who has not had the opportunity to develop leadership skills or demonstrate leadership behavior? In the absence of behavioral data, we recommend looking at what an employee understands about leadership competencies and behaviors.

In other words, find out what they think effective leadership looks like. Do they have a good idea of what is needed to be successful in the job? If they know what a good leader does, there is a greater likelihood they will demonstrate that behavior in a leadership role.


Methods for Identifying Emerging Leaders

How can you identify whether an employee has these characteristics of an emerging leader?

It’s important to train managers to spot high-potential talent. They should act as talent scouts, identifying employees with the will and skill to lead. But it’s best to rely on more than one manager’s perception or gut instinct about who has natural leadership abilities.

Leadership assessment tools are a reliable and systematic way to gain insight about whether employees have the characteristics of emerging leaders. Assessments can provide objective data about how employees are wired, what they want, and what they understand about leadership roles.

When assessing emerging leaders, make sure to capture information about personal tendencies and motivations. You can also test for judgment in specific situations.

For example, our leadership potential assessment tool, Early Identifier, offers powerful insights about how strengths, gaps, and personality can drive performance. Another helpful assessment for identifying emerging leaders is Leadership Snapshot. This assessment provides personality and judgment data across three specific categories: leadership impact, business and management skills, and interpersonal effectiveness.

Assessments like these can also help us understand whether leadership responsibilities will be easy or difficult for an employee to learn. They can also provide insight for tailoring an employee’s leadership development curriculum.


A Work Environment that Fosters Emerging Leaders

A work environment that fosters emerging leaders is one that treats everyone as a potential leader. This mindset enables you to cast a wide net across a broad range of skills, departments, and levels when looking for emerging leaders. It also ensures a more diverse talent and adequate supply of future leaders.

Filling the pipeline is a constant need as employees do not remain in the pipeline permanently. Identifying emerging leaders should be an ongoing activity rather than a one-time event.

In the same spirit of treating all employees as potential leaders, managers should play an active role in cultivating emerging leaders by providing development opportunities. Opportunities should provide a preview into what a leadership role entails—both so emerging leaders in the workplace can practice handling leader-level responsibilities and so managers can observe and coach. Existing managers are in the best position to facilitate these opportunities.

Perhaps the most critical element of a work environment that creates emerging leaders is following through with high-potential development. Too often being identified as a high potential means participating in leadership training with the expectation that you will come out as a ready leader. But the most successful high-potential programs are long-term learning journeys that require manager support, opportunities for practice, and development plans.


How to Foster Emerging Leaders with Leadership Development

In my experience delivering leadership development training for numerous companies, frontline leaders face similar key challenges. They struggle with coaching, managing performance, communication, driving change, and defining their leadership approach. These are the fundamental skills of a leader. But too often we find that these skills are underdeveloped in those already operating as a leader.

An effective leadership development program can start to develop these skills in emerging leaders. Your program should give emerging leaders access to simulations to learn and practice these skills in a safe space with peers at the same level. Emerging leaders can also use self-assessments to better understand their styles and think about what leadership tasks may be easier and harder for them. Most importantly, this training can give them a realistic preview of a leadership role.

Your Development Strategy for Emerging Leaders Matters

Emerging leaders are an organization’s future and must be a part of the business strategy. A constant and consistent focus on identifying and accelerating the development of emerging leaders is critical to achieving business results.


Learn about DDI’s solutions for high-potential employees.

Sehr Javed is a Senior Consultant and Organizational Psychologist at DDI. She enjoys tennis, though would admit to being a better spectator than a player.

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