How do we identify those who have the will and ability to lead?

Even with the latest and greatest hiring tools, I only select the right person for the right role 60% of the time. If we’re only 60% effective at hiring, what makes us think we will be any better at choosing the next leader or leaders of our organization?

To improve the odds, I would suggest this: Instead of trying to pick the next leader, what if you created a leadership bench made up of staffers who show characteristics of a potential future leader? Then, let the cream rise to the top. Natural leaders will present themselves.

As with all these endeavors, we will need some tools to help us find these leaders. “Eyeballing” the situation won’t work. Conversations and getting to know people will help you get some sense of how they might lead and communicate. But you’ll still need more to get this right.

As it turns out, finding talented leaders is both an art and a science.

Your hope is that the cream will rise to the top, that future leaders will self-select. But to make that happen you will need a process that allows and even encourages it. I have found that engaging potential leaders in strategic planning serves as the most powerful tool to measure one's leadership skill set. Here’s why: Not only do you get a strategic plan that’s going to help you grow your organization and get alignment with your leadership team, but the process also allows each of your leadership team members to take responsibility for executing the tactical steps contained in the plan.

What I have found in doing that is that the next generation of leaders rises to the top. They are leading change and making things happen. That’s the kind of leader you are going to want for the future of your organization. They don’t shy away from the role. In fact, they relish it.

At the same time, some of those we thought might be future leaders fall out during this process. I have found that about 30% don’t make it -- and that’s okay. Would you rather know today, or when you’re in the trenches with them working to carry your company forward?

This doesn’t mean they are not good team players and don’t have a seat on the bus. It just means that they’re not in the right seat.

Macy: A Surprising Leadership Story

Back in 2000, Counsilman‐Hunsaker was in need of a receptionist. After our interview process, we found Macy was the best fit for the position.

It would be an understatement to say she was inexperienced in the industry. From day one, however, she displayed a natural curiosity for how the business worked and, most importantly, how it could be improved and what role she could play in that improvement.

Very quickly, Macy’s role within the company began to change. In a couple of years, she was helping us to manage events and customer experiences. She had a talent for spotting ways to improve the customer experience, then implementing those changes. She did this with little need for instruction or oversight despite her lack of experience.

When my partners and I began to discuss our new strategic planning process, we immediately identified Macy as one of those people who had the will and ability to lead. She had a sense for finding the ways to continuously improve processes. And we felt she was ready for a seat at the table.

Just five years after she was hired as our receptionist, Macy joined our strategic planning team. Through her research and dedication to helping us grow, she helped to formalize our strategic improvement and management processes. Perhaps less obvious on paper but unavoidable in experience, Macy had a tendency to be optimistic –- to expect the best of herself and others. She was inspiring. This kind of artful leadership ability was not a theory. We could see it displayed. She leaned into leadership situations that likely caused her discomfort. But she did them with a kind of passion that made every interaction with her meaningful and engaging.

We were lucky to have a person like Macy in our company. A‐players like that are hard to find. And that is just the point. How often do we overlook people who have the leadership ingredients but nowhere to go with them? This does not happen because we do not care, but because there is no basis or path to leadership outside of pure instinct. This matters in the context of building a legacy for your organization. No matter what you may decide you would like to do with your business, there is a need for knowledgeable leaders who know how to make decisions.

To find the leaders like Macy within Counsilman‐Hunsaker, we built upon the structures we already had in place when we had authentic conversations, discussed in my previous column. We used a combination of the corporate dashboard, SWOT analysis, employee surveys and customer surveys and created a strategic planning group. By using the activities associated with strategic planning, we found a way to engage people in ways that were challenging but did not set them up for failure.

We found, through trial and error, that strategic planning is best done with no more than ten people total to promote some intimacy and not a public speaking forum. I also made sure, as the CEO, that I listened more than I talked. This was not easy for me, but it was crucial. We wanted to create our collective plan and not mine. And I wanted to observe how they dealt with adversity, being challenged and how they thought through their portion of the plan.

As a concept, strategic planning has been around since before the Great Depression. Using the concepts involved in plotting the growth of a business is at least a 100‐year‐old idea. At this point, there are as many ways to strategically plan as there are privately held companies. It is nothing new.

The process of strategic planning does more than make people feel like leaders. It gives them a chance to really be leaders, to put their ideas to the test. Being able to strategically plan for the future is a prerequisite for ownership. So why not use that critical skill as a way to identify your next crop of leaders?

Next time: Transferring knowledge