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The 5 Traits of High-Potential Employees

Who will be ready to run your company when you can't be everywhere anymore? Here's how to pick your next generation of leaders.
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As your company grows too big for you to do everything--the way you do now--you're going to give over some of the leadership. (Relax. This is a good thing!) For reasons of staff morale, economy, and your own precious peace of mind, it’s better to find your new generation of leaders inside the company. But there’s a rub. Not every longtime loyal employee is really suited to be a leader.

Some have reached their potential and are quite comfortable where they are. This doesn’t imply mediocrity. It simply means that their role at the company and their ambition have converged, and a degree of leveling has set in. Others on your staff might be the “me-me” type--utterly convinced of their own limitless potential and blind to the overwhelming evidence that they’ve gone as far as they're going to get.  

How do you decide who among your longtime lieutenants have what it takes? I point to five criteria:

1. They know the business. Your high-potential employees are the ones who have true expertise and keep learning. Their knowledge may be technical or it may be institutional, but it’s invaluable for the organization. More important, they understand how their activities, their sector, and their realm of knowledge is related to the company’s goals.

2. Others respect them. Your staff members, not just you, also have to appreciate how much your high-potentials know. It’s not enough that your top people know their stuff. Everyone else has to know they know it.

3. They are ambitious. High-potential employees aren’t just career-minded; they’re ambitious in a focused way. The best way to get a sense of this is to evaluate their commitment to career progression. Look for signs that they long to accumulate new responsibilities, new successes, additional knowledge, and, for better or worse, additional recognition.

4. They work well with others. Though your leaders need to be driven, they also must be able to form partnerships with others besides you. This attitude goes beyond amiability; it's a pragmatic, tactical skill that allows them to make better, more informed decisions. Lone rangers may be creative and ambitious, but they make lousy leaders.

5. They have guts. Your next generation of leaders must understand that no matter how much research they do, no matter how many cost-benefit analyses they conduct, no matter how many market surveys they complete, they will always be deciding under conditions of uncertainty. The information at hand will always be less than the information you wish you had. Leaders need to have the courage to take risks.

Though you don’t want your next generation of leaders to be clones of you, you do want them to have the traits that drove you to build a growing company. You want them to know their stuff. You want them to have a good reputation on your team. You want them to be driven but able to give and accept help. Finally, you want them to have the courage to make tough decisions, even if there’s a chance they’ll fail. Because that’s how entrepreneurship works.

Samuel Bacharach: 'If You Don't Do Politics, You Shouldn't Be a CEO'

To build a business, great ideas and charisma only go so far, says Samuel Bacharach, Cornell professor of labor management. You must be adept at politics.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Jul 30, 2012

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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