Assessing People for Leadership Positions

High Performers or High Potentials-

The need to distinguish between High Performers and High Potentials is essential.
How do we know which employees have “what it takes” to be high potentials and to invest in grooming them for supervisory and management positions or senior leader positions?
How do we know that the Team Leader, Supervisor or Manager who is a high performer in their current role, has “the right stuff” for another level of management?
On my drive back to Dublin from a recent client assignment, I was pondering this question. What I saw in three days working with Managers/Leaders doing 360 feedback, were Managers and Leaders who clearly “had the right stuff” and a few who hadn’t.
What were the distinguishing hallmarks as all had been selected at one time or another in the company as High Potentials?
How can we do a better job at identifying which employees are truly high potentials and which ones aren’t?
Current high performers often get selected for these roles, but some fail and do not live up to their billing as a “high potential”.
In our experience, companies often select people for roles based on factors which are not necessarily about potential, but which are based on current and past performance. This is reasonable and any good behavioural interviewer will be seeking to probe and do a deep assessment of current and past performance.
However, current and past performance is only part of the story.
That’s because not all high performers are high potentials.
And it seems that not everything that makes up a high potential can be fully detected from what an individual already demonstrates on the job.

Distinguishing between High Performers and High Potentials

Potential involves learning new skills to perform in new, very often first-time, and very often very different situations.
It is the ability to quickly learn, adapt, and change and also to draw on their old experience in the new and different situation that distinguishes the high potential from the high performer.
The high potentials are agile learners. They like experimenting, trying new things. They are curious. They easily learn new tasks and functions. They enjoy complexity and ambiguity. They don’t like the status quo. They like to try new things. They like to try new approaches. They tend to push the envelope.

Implications for assessing people for management and leadership positions

The implication is that organisations should assess the person’s agility in the areas of learning, change, people and results when assessing them for future leadership positions.
Organisations need to measure the person’s willingness and ability to learn, adapt, change and perform in a new situation, maybe a first-time situation, maybe tougher conditions and with different people.
In terms of learning and mental agility, an organisation should be looking for inquisitiveness, curiosity, a ‘big picture’ broad scanner, someone who can deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, and also with complexity.
In terms of people agility, an organisation should look for someone who is an excellent communicator, has people smarts, can connect with people, has situational flexibility, can manage conflict, can help others to succeed and who is open minded.
In terms of change agility, an organisation should be looking for a continuous improver, an experimenter, someone with a vision, someone who has strengths in innovating, changing it up, and leading change.
Finally, in terms of results, the person should be resourceful, be solution focused, be a fixer, be a problem solver, be inventive, and be able to remove or get around obstacles.
High Performers or High Potentials-

Key assessment questions

Some of the key questions to ask potential managers or leaders include:


  1.  Ask them to describe a key event (or more than one) in their career to date that caused them the most learning, and find out specifically what happened, what did they learn from the event, how have they changed their style or practices since then, and what results they have achieved as a result.

  3.  Ask them to describe some key events that took them away from their comfort zone, habits and routines, and that stretched them and challenged them in ways that they hadn’t been stretched or challenged previously.

  5.  Ask them to describe some key events where they learned some new and better ways to lead change and to lead people.

  7.  Ask them in what ways they have changed and adapted and to give you some big examples of this.

  9.  Ask them to show you how they have learned new skills, have worked with different types of people, different types of organisations, different types of functions i.e. in different settings.

  11.  Ask them what failures they had and how they handled those failures and what they learned as a result.

  13.  Ask them about a time when they found that what worked for them in the past didn’t work for them in the new situation, that “what got them here, won’t get you there”.



For high performers to continue down the path of the high potential and to be a successful leader (be that a supervisor, team leader, manager or senior executive), they need to be able to show that they can change, adapt, grow, learn and develop quickly in new, sometimes first-time and often tougher situations.
High results to date, high technical or functional skills, high intellect, or high grades and high scores on tests, won’t get you there. High curiosity, high initiative and motivation, street smarts, high intellectual flexibility, broad thinking and high ability to deal with complexity and with ambiguity, as well as people smarts, may get you there.
The recruitment and selection process can be greatly enhanced using researched and validated psychometric testing. If you would like help in this matter, please contact us or Call 01 866 6426