Identifying Leadership Potential in Your Staff

Once you have identified the skills that are essential in tomorrow's higher ed leaders, you will need ways to identify the staff within your institution who demonstrate those skills -- these are the people whose leadership development you want to invest in, and whom you want to entrust with greater responsibilities and opportunities to contribute meaningfully to your institution's success.

Larry Goldstein and Pat Sanaghan offer the following tips to guide you in identifying emerging or potential leaders at your institution.

Avoid Comfortable Cloning

"We tend to hire and promote people who remind us of ourselves, who think like us. The courageous and effective act is to choose people who have different background, different perspective. You learn through diversity, not through looking at yourself in the mirror all the time."
Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group

The practicing of replicating the demographics (in terms of race, gender, and socioeconomic background) and the leadership philosophy of current leaders can be referred to as "comfortable cloning." It's comfortable, but ultimately not as effective as establishing a more diverse talent bench. "We need to look instead to people who are very different from us," Sanaghan advises, "who can provide new, unexpected solutions to adaptive challenges."

A crucial step in identifying a more diverse pool of high potentials is re-evaluating what characteristics and skills we expect to see in a leader.

Stylistic Invisibles

"Too often we have mental models for what we expect leaders to look like. When looking for future leaders to mentor, we seek out verbal, charismatic, quick decision-makers. They look like leaders. But there are other people who don't seek the limelight but do act with great integrity and great strategic thinking, and they get results. They're right in front of us, but we don't see them."
Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group

Goldstein and Sanaghan cite the concept of "stylistic invisibles" -- a term coined by Linda Hill to indicate those professionals who, because their leadership style is markedly different from an institution's norm, often remain effectively "invisible" to the institution's current leaders. Selecting only the charismatic and outspoken personalities as future leaders narrows your pool and constricts the talent available to you.

The challenge is to find ways to allow the untapped potential to become more visible. Goldstein and Sanaghan offer this advice:

  • Encourage diversity on your institution's most critical committees and task forces (e.g., for strategic planning, retention, and student learning assessment); Sanaghan recommends focusing especially on generational diversity -- "have people under age 30 on the task force, and get the perspectives of young staff who are close to the future"
  • Take note of staff who pull together teams and informal task forces to address issues within your organization: who formed your employee health and wellness committee? Who gathered ten to 15 volunteers to come clean one portion of the campus on a Saturday morning? Goldstein and Sanaghan suggest that these "quiet heroes" and "grassroots leaders" may show exactly the skill sets you want to develop within your institution
  • Identify your institution's "cultural travelers"

Cultural Travelers

"Effective leaders will be able to coordinate effectively across your institution's multiple subcultures, across departments and colleges, in order to get things done. These leaders know how to build "relational capital," and they know how to translate ideas between different perspectives."
Pat Sanaghan, The Sanaghan Group

"Who already serves your institution across several boundaries or silos?" Sanaghan asks. "You need to assess who your cultural travelers are."

Goldstein and Sanaghan offer these criteria for identifying effective cultural travelers:

  • A reputation for credibility on campus
  • Hard workers
  • A passion for the institution
  • A knack for problem-solving, but not necessarily joined with concern about getting the credit
  • Relationship builders
  • Great listeners
  • A proven record of coordinating efforts, resources, and staff (whether formally or informally) across multiple offices

Hiring Practices

Finally, if leadership development is to be a strategic priority for your institution, then you also need to invest in bringing the right people into your institution. This entails defining what your institution sees as critical leadership skills, and ensuring that that list of core principles guides practices in hiring, professional development, training, supervision, and performance evaluation. "If cross-group problem-solving and creativity are two core principles," Sanaghan comments, "then you need to hire and evaluate for those. You need to reward and incentivize collaborative problem-solving and creativity. That creates not only a strong talent bench but also alignment and trust: we know that this person is in this position because this person exhibits the core values and leadership philosophy of our institution."