how to promote the best leaders

How to Promote the Best Leaders

To promote the best first-time leaders, focus on more than results.

Your decisions about who you put in management and leadership roles are some of the most important leadership decisions you’ll ever make. It’s a decision about who you will trust with your most important asset—your people. With so much at stake and riding on the quality of your leaders, what do you look for when you want to promote the best leaders?

Many leaders look to their high achievers—the people who are very effective at what they do. The best programmer, the top salesperson, the teacher who consistently helps students overcome obstacles and achieve. Others look for a person’s willingness to speak up, take charge, and “get things done.”

Unfortunately, neither high-performance nor a commanding personality are reliable indicators that a person can lead well.

Some high-performers are fantastic leaders and others struggle to make the transition. Some outgoing personalities lead well and others don’t. (And some of your quiet folks may amaze you with their ability to bring people together to get things done.)

The Problem with Performance

We’re not saying that a leader’s technical proficiency and expertise doesn’t matter. It does.

People need to trust their leader and their competence at work. Being a remarkable example goes a long way.

It’s not that dissimilar from how you hire for roles requiring technical competence. You look for competence at the fundamentals, but excellence in their area of expertise matters even more.

In the same way, when you’re looking for leaders, you want good performance. But, the number one ability you are looking for is their capacity to lead.

One of the biggest mistakes we see leaders make when promoting high-performers to leadership positions is using performance or personality as a surrogate for leadership.

Promote the Best Leaders (even if they haven’t led before)

So how can you tell if someone has the capacity to lead—before they’ve actually led?

Start with these foundational characteristics:

  • Technical knowledge and expertise and a strong track record of results (they know what they’re doing and command the respect of others up, down, and sideways.)
  • Integrity (you can count on them to do the right thing consistently.)
  • Accountability (they do what they say they will— and hold others to a similar standard.)
  • Vision (they see opportunities where others don’t and can rally their peers around a compelling vision.)
  • Commitment (they care about the success of the team— beyond their own results.)
  • Confidence (they are willing and able to stand up for what matters and speak the truth—in a way others can hear.)
  • Humility (they surround themselves with people who will challenge them and encourage new ideas.)

Note: This confident-humility dynamic includes the ability to use power judiciously.

Most employees don’t come to you with all of these characteristics fully developed. In fact, apart from integrity, character, and personal responsibility, the others will always develop over time.

This means that you will need to invest in building these traits in your employees and give them opportunities to demonstrate these abilities.

Whether you use formal 9 box succession planning or a more informal process, you’ll want to train leadership skills, and then give people a chance to lead. These opportunities reveal leaders and build leadership capacity. You’ll discover who can influence before they have formal power, and who can exercise influence without abusing the privilege.

Ad hoc projects, interdepartmental teams, committees, interim-assignments when a supervisor is absent, as well as employee-sponsored initiatives are ample chances for your team to practice their leadership skills.

As you evaluate potential (and pitfalls), don’t forget to follow up these assignments with a debrief about what worked, what they learned, and what they would (or could) do differently next time.

To promote the best leaders, look for the people who lead where they are and don’t need position power to get things done.

Your Turn

We’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment and share your number one strategy to develop leadership and promote the best leaders?

See Also: 9 Creative Ways to Develop Your Managers

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Overlooked for promotion again - now what

Overlooked For Promotion Again: Now What Should I Do?

Dear Karin and David,

I’ve been sitting in the “ready now” box on the performance potential grid for over a year. But this is the third promotion in a row that’s gone to someone clearly less qualified for political reasons. I’ve been overlooked for promotion again, but my boss says to “be patient,” that “my time will come.” I’m not so sure. What should I do?

Signed,

Impatient and Frustrated

5 Ways to Respond When You’ve Been Overlooked For a Promotion

Dear Impatient and Frustrated,

We are so sorry to hear about your situation and know how frustrating that can be. The most important thing you can do at the moment is to respond well. Don’t let your frustration at feeling overlooked for promotion bring out any poor leadership behaviors that could get in the way of you being considered the next time.

1. Keep Your Cool

The truth is everyone is watching your reaction. If the decision really was political, there will be others frustrated along with you and it’s tempting to commiserate and gossip. Resist the urge to complain (even behind “closed doors.” Take the high road.) Handling this disappointment elegantly will foster respect and differentiate you for future consideration.

2. Ask For Genuine Feedback

There are a lot of criteria that go into who was selected and why. There may be political reasons that have nothing to do with you, or it may be true that there is someone (or someones ) involved in the decision who have concerns about your performance or behaviors. Calmly ask your boss for candid feedback about what you can do to be best positioned for the next promotion, in terms of results and relationships. The feedback may be hard to hear, but it’s better to know.

See our post on 5 Behaviors Keeping You From Getting Promoted , our Fast Company article on communication mistakes that silently damage careers.

3. Be Supportive

Another classy move. Be supportive and helpful during this change. Be sure you and your team go out of your way to help the newly promoted manager.

4.  Channel Your Energy to Create Something Extraordinary

You’re fired up. Use that powerful emotional energy to fuel your creativity and your next stand-out move.

5. Remember How This Feels

Someday someone will come to you frustrated at being overlooked for promotion and asking for candid feedback. Remember how you wanted to be treated during this time and use that to inform your leadership in the future.

Most of all, remember that your team is watching. Your brand is at stake. Respond as the leader you are.

(Note: we recognize and have observed real discrimination and ethical violations in promotions. In these instances, a conversation with your human resources department is the place to start.)

Your turn. What advice would you give Impatient and Frustrated?

Have a leadership or management question? Send it here and we’ll do our best to share our perspective.