Predicting Potential: Personality Matters

By Erin Wilson Burns | June 28, 2017

Future potential (promotability) is the ability to master the greater scope and scale of higher-level positions or the expanded scope and scale in a rapidly-growing business. But identifying which of many successful mid-level leaders have what it takes to succeed in the top jobs is a challenge that most organizations grapple with.

Future potential (promotability) is the ability to master the greater scope and scale of higher-level positions or the expanded scope and scale in a rapidly-growing business. But identifying which of many successful mid-level leaders have what it takes to succeed in the top jobs is a challenge that most organizations grapple with. The “secret sauce” of what makes one successful leader make the transition while a seemingly similar leader flails is seen by many as elusive. Past successful transitions are a good indicator--but no guarantee--of an individual’s ability to continue to succeed in positions that require greater complexity of scope and scale.
As research in adult development, organization, personality, and leadership has continued to evolve in the past decade, we have identified two criteria that are central to understanding and predicting real high-potential.

  • First, to be successful in leadership positions, leaders must have the conceptual capability to meet the intellectual demands of the leadership positions they are in. Most organizations evaluate potential for advancement by how well job incumbents have done this, but without awareness of precisely how this relates to future potential beyond the next position. However, we now know how these intellectual demands vary based on work level, and how to predict distant future potential based on current and past performance.  
  • Second, even with the conceptual and cognitive horsepower to perform, many individual leaders fail to succeed. Whether it’s called derailment, fatal flaws, or something else, we know that certain personality profiles are more likely to succeed in leadership positions. We also know that many personal attributes are not linear predictors of effectiveness. This is difficult to see in current and past performance because these assignments probably did not offer the opportunity to see how the individual copes with assignments of high complexity under conditions of high uncertainty, as will be the case in top-level roles. 

While many leadership traits remain constant in looking at effective leaders at different levels in the organization, other traits take on increased importance and can even predict effectiveness in higher-level leadership roles. Our research has found that high-potential future executives are:
1. Objective: While leaders at all levels build strong relationships and communicate sincere concern and care for their teams and others in the organization, effective senior executives are able to remove concern for themselves and/or their teams from decision-making and problem-solving processes. They are more likely to apply a rational, analytical perspective that emphasizes the interests of the whole (rather than protecting fiefdoms or protégés). They are able to balance consideration of the facts and impacts on the individuals to produce decisions that are both factually sound and can be accepted by the people who are affected by the decision. Read the full article on Objectivity in the Workplace

2. Positive Outlook: Leaders at all levels must have confidence, but the confidence required to set direction and inspire confidence in the midst of uncertain business environment while managing the inevitable setbacks, complications, skepticism, and push-back from stakeholders inside and outside the organization requires a higher order of magnitude of confidence. Effective senior executives are optimistic and self-accepting, approachable and less prone to defensiveness and denial, and calm and even-tempered in the face of complications and setbacks. Read full article on the Importance of a Positive Outlook

3. Engaged: Effective senior executives see themselves as activists within the organization, confidently and boldly influencing the direction of the organization and bringing innovative approaches and new ideas. They are engaged by ambiguous situations, have the stamina and drive to want to work through complex problems, and are successful in influencing others and getting things done. They are passionate about what they do. Read full article on Executive Engagement. 

4. Innovative: Effective senior executives deal in a changing world of decisions made on abstracted processes and implications and constant ambiguity. To a much greater extent than middle-managers, they must be able to step away from what is done now and how it is done and see need for new directions. They tend not to be anchored to existing function and practice. This freedom enables them to envision possibilities that are outside conventional thought and practice and adapt the organization to new realities. Read full article on Leaders as Innovators. 

5. Team Builder: Good leaders at any level in the organization need to be able to integrate their unique contribution as a leader seamlessly with the existing team resources to achieve results. However, effective senior leaders tend to be more flexible and open in leading others and less focused on themselves and their leadership prerogatives. They avoid prescriptive guidance and stay focused on the ends while building on ideas of others or allowing autonomy in determining the means to those ends. As a result, they are able to positively (though indirectly) impact problem-solving and performance as well as commitment. Read full article on Leaders as Team Builders

6. Quick Study: Compared to other leaders, good senior leaders are more quick to grasp the essence of new situations. They have built rich mental models that allow them to recognize obscure factors in the decision space and connections between immediate and distant effects. They can switch from one set of considerations or audiences to another quickly and effectively and are perceptive about their organization and interpersonal relationships. More than good middle-level leaders, they understand the system they operate within, both inside and outside the walls of their organization.  Read full article: Great Leaders are Quick Learners

7. Trusting: Not surprisingly, executives are more likely to have a positive view and trusting approach towards the organization itself and those that work within it. It is not a blind obeisance to authority, but rather a trust of, comfort with, and an ability to operate constructively and positively within authority structures. They understand that the organization enables the achievement of societal objectives that cannot otherwise be achieved and are motivated by those objectives. Read full article: Does Trust Matter for Leaders? 

Efforts to identify and develop current leaders to be ready to successfully assume executive-level positions should emphasize these differentiating traits. Deliberately developing them by exposing them to broad enough views of the organization that they have the opportunity to develop mental models needed for success and giving them targeted ways to practice new behaviors, ways of thinking, and decision-making and problem-solving approaches in safe but stretch settings can speed pipeline development. Organizations that help successful mid-level leaders understand what is different about how to lead at more senior levels and where they need to focus their development will see better results faster.

RBL provides a wide range of research-based assessment, development, and consulting services to help you find and build leaders who can deliver results today and tomorrow. Contact us to learn more about how we can help.

Erin is a principal at The RBL Group with 20 years of experience in leadership development, executive coaching, and organization design and transformation consulting.

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