How to spot overlooked leaders
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How to spot overlooked leaders

6 months ago · 3 min read

Every employer wants to make sure it promotes its best employees to leadership roles. But your most valuable people may not be the ones at the top of the organizational chart.

Eric McNulty, a leadership expert, author, and associate director of Harvard University’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, likes to challenge the way organizations think about the value and potential of the individuals who make up their workforce.

FM magazine spoke with McNulty about how to spot potential leaders within your organization and how to support them.

Look for connectors

Companies should look for people who are good at crossing organizational boundaries, McNulty said.

“They’re good at connecting silos and making sure that the connective tissue of an organization is really robust. It’s people who are good translators from one specialty to another, so they can make the connection between finance and HR and marketing,” he said. “They’re good relationship builders.”

You want to look for people who can connect the dots where others cannot.

Know who these “keystone people” are, McNulty advised. These are the people who are integral to keeping all the parts of the company moving. Identifying and retaining your top talent will help attract more people like them.

Find talent by getting to know them

McNulty said the best way to identify these people is to walk around, ask questions, and find out how the work actually gets done.

“Don’t just look at the reports or the numbers on your dashboard, but dig in a bit and talk to people,” he said.

He gave the example of a hospital CEO he knows who stopped holding large group meetings and started meeting with employees one-on-one.

“He could really get in-depth with people, understand what they were doing, how they were delivering results, and what challenges they were facing,” he said. “Always be curious about your organization and how it functions.”

There are also companies that sell technology that can do an organizational network analysis, which will tell you how people are connected and in which ways, McNulty added. You can see who is interacting with whom, and which people are being invited onto different teams because they have a reputation for being able to get things done.

Examine how you determine potential

McNulty believes that employees identified as “high potential” and targeted for special development opportunities are not always the most valuable workers.

He challenges organizations to examine their criteria for labeling someone as “high potential.” Is it simply that a person graduated from a top-rated school?

“What about the person who really blooms in their early 30s who you didn’t see coming along the way when they first joined the organization, but they’ve blossomed since?” he said. “Do they have a chance to get into that high-potential pool?”

He used the example of star quarterback Tom Brady, who was the 199th pick in his NFL draft. Few teams saw his potential then, but Brady went on to become the player who has won the most Super Bowls in history.

Also consider what happens when people flagged for potential don’t work out, he said. Do you have an evidence-based system in place to review people over time and assess their potential?

Organizations should adapt their criteria for classifying high-potential people based on performance according to both financial and nonfinancial criteria.

Support your valued employees

Once you know who your keystone people are, the best thing you can do is to ask how to support them.

“They tend to be very committed to the larger mission,” McNulty said.

So, ask them: “What’s getting in your way? Is it our IT systems? Is it our accounting processes? Does the hiring process take too long?”

Sometimes, your most valuable employees might be role-based, which is the case at the online footwear retailer Zappos. The company has invested a lot in its customer service team.

At many organizations, customer service representatives are not well paid. The jobs have a high turnover rate, and that’s just how it’s done, McNulty said.

But Zappos found that having the best customer service possible resulted in customers choosing to spend their footwear dollars with the company, McNulty said.

It’s important to ask your valued employees: “How can we help you achieve your greatest potential within this organization and beyond?”

“You’re more likely to actually have them achieve that potential, which should be good for the organization as well as the individual,” he said.

Want to hear more of the conversation with Eric McNulty of Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative? Click here to listen to the full podcast interview.

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