Fast Track to Leadership – Define Potential

By CSDA ADMIN posted 01-02-2020 02:18 PM


By Melissa Asher, PMP, SPHR, Senior Leader, CPS HR Consulting

We are in a leadership trough. There is near universal agreement among public and private sector organizations that one of their biggest challenges is developing effective leaders. Seasoned leaders are retiring and those coming behind them do not have their years of experience.

The tight labor market isn’t helping either. With fewer people looking for jobs, it is even harder to attract job seekers to the public sector. During the economic downturn, the public sector was a welcome haven for leadership talent fleeing the turbulent private sector. Those days are over. The pendulum has swung the other way with the private sector luring public sector talent to fill their leadership gap. And gig economy mentality has taken its toll - eroding the long-standing benefit of longevity that has been a mainstay of public sector recruitment and retention.

So, what can we do to overcome these obstacles and fast track leadership development? Two things -look at succession planning differently and focus on skill-building rather than years of experience.

Look at Succession Planning Differently

Have you heard of the 9-box? This traditional method has several shortcomings that make it difficult to identify the right leaders and can actually slow down your succession planning process. With this model, management comes together and using a 3 by 3 matrix, rates staff on two dimensions, performance and potential.

While the simplicity of this model is appealing, it is actually complicating leadership selection and development. Performance measurement should be relatively objective, and most organizations have at least some concrete metrics. But, if you have ever been part of a performance appraisal process you know it is fraught with subjectivity. Supervisors struggle with how to quantify things like attitude, initiative, and getting along with others.

However, challenges calibrating performance pale in comparison to calibrating potential. What exactly is leadership potential anyway? Most organizations talk about performance measures, but who talks about potential measures? Leadership potential is the capacity to be successful in a future leadership role with a certain amount of learning and development. So, how do we determine if someone has this capacity? Unfortunately, in most 9-box exercises this becomes a purely subjective decision by one supervisor at one point in time.

One way to improve your efforts and fast-track leadership development is to explicitly define leadership potential for your organization. You can boil leadership potential down to two factors: (1) Motivation to be in a leadership role, and (2) Possession of key leadership competencies.


Motivation goes well beyond someone “wanting to be leader”. Potential leaders should be truly ready to step into all that leadership brings. Consider these three things: (1) Willingness to take on extra duties and responsibilities. (2) Willingness to make sacrifices for the organization. (3) Willingness to embrace a certain amount of psychological discomfort.

That’s right, leadership is not all champagne and caviar. Who knew? The extra pay comes with extra responsibilities and tough decision making that everyone is not prepared to sustain. And, potential leaders need to be in it for the right reasons – many times emphasizing the organization over self. Some of these qualities may be shocking to “want-to-be leaders”. Supervisors should discuss the motivation questions with employees who express a desire to move into a titled leadership role.

Key Competencies

Once the motivation hurdle has been cleared, look at the seven key competencies research has shown as predictors of leadership success. Spoiler alert, they are not technical competencies.

  1. Takes Accountability – Demonstrates integrity and trustworthiness; and fulfills promises and commitments to others.
  2. Possesses a Learning Orientation – Demonstrates curiosity, innovation, and insight; and considers creative approaches and applies novel solutions.
  3. Perseveres – Demonstrates persistence, adaptability, flexibility, and grit in a variety of situations and in the face of setbacks. Open to different and new ways of doing things and willing to modify preferences and priorities for the greater good.
  4. Supports Vision and Takes Strategic Action – Supports, promotes and ensures alignment with the organization’s vision and values. Understands how an organization must change in light of internal and external trends and influences.
  5. Inspires – Energizes others and creates a sense of direction, purpose, excitement, engagement and momentum for the organization’s mission.
  6. Fosters Collaboration – Develops, maintains and strengthens relationships while working together to achieve results.
  7. Facilitates Understanding – Communicates clearly with others; encourages an environment where others are free to express their thoughts and opinions. With these competencies and definitions, you now have a solid basis to understand and measure potential. This will take the guesswork out of your succession planning and help your employees understand what is expected when taking on leadership roles.

Then, use the competencies as an assessment tool. Ask employees to assess themselves on the seven competencies and cite specific examples. Be sure examples include when competencies were demonstrated as well as times when they weren’t. Beyond illustrating current behaviors, this approach illuminates self-awareness and the ability to learn from past experiences, both important leadership abilities.

Focus on Skill Building Rather Than Years of Experience

You may have noticed that the world of work is evolving. Many roles that exist today won’t exist in the future. Skills that got us to where we are today may not be the skills our next leaders need to navigate increasingly uncertain and uncharted business problems.

Looking at succession planning differently also focuses on skill building rather than years of experience – our second strategy to fast-track leadership development. Through the competency assessment approach, the employee and supervisor can see what areas need developing. A path to leadership development can be charted through focused skill building. Use a simple one-page development plan to keep the employee on track and provide both the supervisor and employee with regular talking points to discuss short and long-term career development.

With new technologies and changing customer needs and expectations, job redesign is an ongoing conversation in the HR world. Tomorrow’s leaders will not be maintaining status quo or using solutions from the past, they will be charting novel and creative solutions. Therefore, continually building new skills will better serve a leader today than rehashing techniques and solutions pulled from past experiences.

Creating a fast track for leaders in your organization should be a priority. With these two simple steps - better defining what leadership potential means in your organization and focusing on skill building - you can more quickly assess who is ready and then ramp them up with focused development. Get ready to see the talent in your organization move to the fast lane.

This article was published in the November/December 2019  issue of California Special Districts magazine. Read more from this magazine here.