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Succession Planning: How to Identify Leaders

For an organization to grow and continue to meet its goals, it needs a plan in place to identify and develop leaders. Many companies have programs in place for leadership development, but to properly identify leaders is perhaps even more important. It can also be more challenging. When companies identify leaders early in their careers, they have more opportunities to develop their skills. Good leaders are cultivated over a career, not in a period of one to two years, so it’s crucial to start early. How do you identify leaders? What traits do you look for and which do you avoid?

Look for people who have a tolerance for risk

Successful leaders are not afraid of risk. They challenge norms and take calculated risks to push boundaries so that their businesses do not stagnate or lose relevance. Sitting behind a desk with a “business as usual” mindset is is not the mark of a great leader. The world moves too quickly for that business model to be viable.

Avoid people who spend too much time on consensus building

Consensus is important. It can increase employee participation and engagement, but it is time-consuming and doesn’t always lead to the best decisions. We all know that trying to get people to agree on anything can be like trying to herd cats. A leader who spends too much time asking others what direction to take and what the business should be pursuing is not leading. Instead, look for an individual who is interested in the opinions of others, but has his or her own ideas and isn’t afraid to pursue them.

Look for people with personal integrity

Leaders who act with integrity inspire others and make them more willing to follow their vision. Integrity is demonstrated through small actions and behaviors. People with integrity support the team, even when they are under pressure. They take responsibility. When something goes wrong, they don’t blame the economy, co-workers, clients, or anyone and everyone but themselves. Good leaders take responsibility, learn from their mistakes and move on.

Avoid people who are overly competitive and lack humility

Having an ego can be a good thing. It shows confidence and ambition. However, an over-inflated ego can turn into defensiveness and foster a destructive level of competitiveness. Avoid people who view their colleagues and co-workers as rivals rather than teammates; take it personally when someone disagrees with their ideas; or shoot down others’ ideas just because they didn’t think of them first.

Ability to engage, inspire and persuade others

Engaged employees have a positive attitude, and are also more enthusiastic and more profitable to their employers. What are the personality traits of an engaging leader? Writing for Fast Company, Dr. Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic says that engaging leaders tend to be “more emotionally stable, ambitious, sociable, and interpersonally sensitive than others.” In other words, they are calm under pressure, set challenging goals, are communicative, nurture relationships and are attuned to the feelings of others.

Avoid workaholics who can’t delegate

In companies where long hours and working evenings and weekends are valued, workaholics may be promoted quickly, but these people rarely make good leaders. They are often difficult to work for and with and unfairly judge others on hours worked rather than their accomplishments. They have trouble delegating to others, take on more work than they can effectively handle, and mistakenly believe they are the only ones who can do the job. Rather than looking for people who spend the most time at work, seek out individuals who leave the office on time every night – because they managed to find a way to work smarter.

Leadership development programs can help refine the skills of a natural leader, but without innate talent, visionary leaders cannot be easily manufactured. Look for these traits early and nurture them. When you develop great leaders, your company will be chasing vision, not just goals.

Identifying leaders is just a small part of the bigger picture – to learn more about succession planning check out our white paper!


Janet Berry-Johnson

Janet Berry-Johnson is a CPA and a freelance writer with a background in accounting and insurance. Her writing has appeared in Forbes, Guyvorce, Magnify Money, Freshbooks, Intuit's Firm of the Future, Discover Student Loans, and Chase News & Stories. Janet lives in Arizona with her husband and son and their rescue dog, Dexter.