While organizations often try to cultivate leaders through programs or look for them outside their walls, they already may have “hidden” leadership potential in their own ranks. Many people with strong leadership skills often can remain invisible due to unconventional backgrounds, a loss of motivation, or because they have fallen off a development path.
Overlooking leadership potential not only leaves the individual feeling alienated and de-motivated, but it also robs the organization of potentially great leaders. Here are 3 ways CEOs can find hidden leaders in their workforce.
1. Look for people who haven’t had a chance to rise to the top. Organizations should start by having managers scan their departments for promising individuals who are not on a list of high potentials. Managers can look for workers that show high performance and they can also leverage technology and personnel databases for educational and training backgrounds. McKinsey said “patterns often emerge” and can present people with solid credentials who had a bad experience early on and never recovered, people who started strong and didn’t continue to grow, or people who have simply had adverse experiences with particular managers.
In The Hidden Leader, authors Scott Edinger and Laurie Sain say that hidden leaders often have 4 key identifiers: they demonstrate integrity, lead through relationships, focus on results and remain customer-focused. They said integrity is an “absolute bottom-line requirement of hidden leadership” and that their thoughts and actions are guided by a strong ethical code of conduct that is “focused on the welfare of everyone.”
2. Entice leaders to identify themselves. Organizations also can engage in fishing with “bait” to encourage these hidden leaders to identify themselves. This could include offering rewards for atypical performance in things like quality control, innovation, inspirational leadership, or problem-solving skills. Workforce solutions provider Adecco, which runs a “CEO for One Month” program, offers work-based training program opportunities for young people, but also has found it to be a great system to find hidden leads.
McKinsey said a successful fishing strategy requires that companies know what leadership attributes are needed and design a bait accordingly, noting that “It’s counterproductive to arouse the expectations of leadership candidates, only to discover they don’t meet the company’s needs.”
3. Analyze social networks. CEOs also can use social dynamics to flush out potential hidden leaders. McKinsey said they should dig more broadly into employees’ work environments to find leadership capabilities that might be more apparent to peers and front line workers than to those in the boardroom. Some companies use anonymous surveys to learn more about which individuals are playing influential roles in operations, regardless of their positions.
Leaders in lower roles often may exhibit superior problem-solving abilities. A person’s ability to figure things out proactively, rather than waiting to be “fed” information or opportunities, is a strong indicator of a person’s ability to lead. Because leaders rarely have a roadmap of how to lead effectively and because there is no one there to tell them what to do, being able to make optimal decisions with dispersed information is essential.
Michael McKinney, president of LeadershipNow, said that hidden leaders often are easier to find in “flatter” organizations and those with a greater number of areas to contribute. “By recognizing hidden leaders, we help to create a culture that develops more leaders. The hidden leaders are there. It’s a leader’s responsibility to discover and develop them,” said McKinney.