The UK labour market has finally started to see a fall in vacancies following a post-COVID spike in open positions. But there are still more than a million job vacancies, which are “damaging the economy by preventing firms from fulfilling order books and taking on new work”, according to the British Chambers of Commerce.
A recent survey by this business lobby group found four-fifths of firms can’t recruit the people they need. Companies often look outside for external candidates to fill senior roles, but this overlooks current employees who may have the potential to move up within an organisation – even if they do not know it yet.
Overlooking employees often happens when management plays it safe, rather than risking giving “one of their own” an important new assignment. The resulting untapped employee potential can leave people feeling underused and frustrated. You need to be given opportunities to stretch, learn and develop to fulfil your potential at work.
This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.
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Human resource managers use potential – and in particular, leadership potential – to identify the employees that could be their organisation’s future leaders. In the business world (and often in academic research too), the term “high potential” typically means you are able to develop further and faster than others in a similar situation.
Someone with leadership potential has the capacity to be an effective leader in the future, but may need support to develop the right skills and experience to succeed. So, how can you work out your own leadership potential? Research highlights three main traits you need:
1. Growth: learning and motivation
Many studies identify the ability to learn as key to predicting future leadership effectiveness. This incorporates keenness to learn, the ability to extract as many lessons as possible from different experiences, and to adapt by applying these to enhance your future performance.
This explains why some people learn more from their experiences (and develop faster) than others. There is also a motivational component that includes drive and perseverance to achieve results, and the ambition to lead.
2. Foundational: cognitive and personality characteristics
Research shows that people who are more emotionally balanced, sociable, ambitious, conscientious and curious are more likely to become leaders.
Also, because it’s important to be able to make decisions effectively in any senior role, cognitive capabilities are key. These typically include strong judgment skills in complex and ambiguous situations, and being able to collect and evaluate information from diverse sources to reach solid decisions.
3. Career: qualities specific to the future role
Some models of potential also include “career dimensions”, which are specific skills relevant to a future role. For leadership potential, these might include qualities such as strategic thinking or collaboration.
New technology and workplace trends are among the factors that are changing how we work. This means the demands of future roles – and the career-specific qualities required to excel in them – may be quite different to those of your current job. In fact, research shows that more than 70% of today’s top performers still lack the key qualities that will help them to be successful in their future roles.
How can you develop these qualities?
As rapid change renders knowledge and skills out of date at an astonishing rate, the ability to learn is increasingly crucial to future leaders. Rather than “having all the answers”, you need to be able to find or figure the answers out. This means that leaders need the humility to know they don’t know it all, and the interpersonal skills to listen openly and learn from a diverse network of people.
At the height of the COVID pandemic, for example, New Zealand’s then prime minister Jacinda Ardern didn’t have all the answers. But she used her platform to quite literally ask for information. Ardern did a series of video interviews with different experts to get some key answers, speaking to a psychologist about coping with the stresses of the pandemic, and an experienced business mentor about supporting small businesses.
Having asked, listened and sought varied insights, leaders must then apply strong judgment and problem-solving skills to decide on the best way forward – even if there is no obvious path. This draws upon cognitive ability, but it also involves skills that can be learnt.
Problems identifying potential
Unfortunately, organisations often rely upon current (or past) performance as a barometer of potential, which is far from ideal – not just because only a small proportion of current high performers also have high potential, but because people with strong potential may not currently be performing at their best. Perhaps they aren’t in the right role, or aren’t being sufficiently stretched or supported.
Either way, your employer shouldn’t conflate your current performance with your potential. This could also perpetuate the lack of diversity that persists at leadership level in many firms. Past performance is limited by opportunity. Some people, due to biases and stereotypes, may not have been offered the chance to show what they are capable of yet.
To avoid these problems, organisations need to assess their employees objectively to find those with leadership potential. This could include doing psychometric tests of their personality and cognitive and learning abilities. Simulations of typical tasks or problems could also replicate the likely cognitive demands of future leadership roles, helping to identify people who can best cope and learn from the experience.
Supporting future leaders
It’s important to remember that potential does not automatically unfold once it’s identified. Indeed, some studies claim that 40% of high-potential promotions end in failure.
However, if you’re good at learning from experiences and applying this to improve how you do things, and are motivated to progress and grow, you have a good chance of developing the career dimension qualities needed to be a future leader – and to do this faster than your peers.
But organisations must help by finding ways to stretch employees, while also building the scaffolding to support their learning and development. They should balance challenge with support through coaching, to help employees learn as much as they can from their experiences. If you want to be a future leader, you can then use these experiences to enhance your job performance and reach your full potential.