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How To Identify Potential Leadership Talent Early

September 28, 2023

When we talk to startups about hiring leaders, they often claim to be looking for “the executive who took XYZ Startup to the next level.” They want someone who worked for a competitor through a large fundraising round, a product release, or a massive revenue increase.

That’s not what they actually need, though.

Everyone wants an all-star, sure. But when you’re looking to fill a role, it’s not always ideal to go after someone who already held an equivalent role. They may have moved on, or there may be more competition to hire them now.

Ideally, you want to identify leadership talent before they rise to the top.

While that may seem obvious, it can also sound like a tall order. Thankfully, there are strategies that can help you discover potential leadership talent before they become a VP or a CXO. We asked experts from our talent search team for their top tips, and we’re sharing them today.

Look for someone strategic, who considers the big picture.

If someone has experience making decisions or leading projects that impact the overall organization, it’s a great sign. Similarly, if their contributions have been strategic, rather than primarily tactical, they are likely oriented towards the big picture.

Someone who operates with the entire company in mind, rather than having a narrow focus on their function, will be more prepared to step into a leadership role.

Look for someone with experience building and managing teams.

The ability to lead a team is vital for a senior-level executive. This skill is one that many practice long before they reach that level, though, and it can offer great insights into someone’s leadership potential.

Take a look at your potential leader’s team. How many people do they manage? Are they mentoring and developing talent? What are their retention rates? Is their team succeeding?

In many cases, leaders may be operating at a high level without the title to go with it. It’s important to examine someone’s achievements, rather than their job history, to determine whether they’re ready for more responsibility. Otherwise, you might miss out on incredible talent.

Look for someone who challenges themselves to learn and grow.

Successfully innovating in a current or previous role is an indicator that someone might be ready to step up. If you’re interviewing a candidate for a leadership position, it’s a good idea to ask about unique initiatives they’ve introduced. Likewise, ask how willing they are to take on challenges outside of their comfort zone. Can they give examples? How do they respond when they are stretched to grow? Look for someone who is a continuous learner and takes on tasks and projects outside their normal scope of work. Someone who has already demonstrated strong leadership in this way will often have the ability to take on a broader leadership role. Someone who has succeeded in a similar, but smaller, role may be ready to take it to the next level.

Take a look at what they’re doing outside of their primary role, too. Do they belong to any associations or programs that are focused on elevating leaders or executives? Check their social media pages or Google their name—are they a thought leader in their area of expertise? Contributions such as articles, blog posts, or publications can be a great way to examine a candidate’s perspective. Experience as a panelist or guest speaker may be a sign that others recognize their leadership qualities and expertise.

Look for someone with proximity to quality leadership.

Who is your potential leader learning from? Do they work closely with an incredible senior leader? Proximity to quality leadership can often have a significant impact on shaping the kind of leader someone will turn out to be.

If they have experience working alongside leadership, they may be ready to step up themselves. Someone who participates in their company’s board meetings may be more comfortable stepping into a leadership role at a higher level. Even if they weren’t previously a senior executive, demonstrating a level of comfort and ease working with senior leaders is a great sign.

Final thoughts

Don’t overlook a potential leader’s attitude. Stepping into a new, more challenging role requires humility and self-awareness. Your candidates should be people you look forward to working with, who will lead their teams with respect, and who are eager to grow into the role.

Bolster Talent Consultants consider a wide variety of factors, in addition to those listed above. We look at industry experience, progressive experience, the companies someone has previously worked with, and more. We are also sure to check our own biases—something that is even more important when looking for rising talent who may not have proven themselves in a senior role yet.

Want help identifying the right talent for your open leadership role? Bolster matches CEOs and their teams with transformational executives, mentors, and board members—without the hassle of traditional talent sourcing. Built by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs, our no-nonsense, no-frills approach makes it easier than ever for teams like yours to find the right leaders. Start your search today.