You have an ambitious team member who’s asking to be promoted to manager. He’s great at his job, but is he really ready to lead? How do you judge his skills and experience? What’s the best way to measure his potential?
What the Experts Say
As a manager, you’re always on the lookout for the next generation of talent in your organization. But trying to figure out whether a particular direct report is management material is not always straightforward, says Anna Ranieri, executive coach and author of the forthcoming Connecting the Dots: Telling the Story to Advance Your Career. “It requires different skills to manage than to be an individual contributor,” she says. “And since you want your decision to promote to be the right one, you wonder, ‘How do I make a sure enough bet?’” The good news is that, “people can develop their capacity to lead,” says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and the coauthor of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. “What you’re looking for is behavioral evidence that this person has the potential and talents to manage.” If you’re successful in the evaluation stage, you’ll be in a better position to “anticipate the person’s weaknesses so you can help onboard him into a management role when the time comes.” Here are some ways to go about it.
A good starting point, according to Ranieri, is to determine whether your ambitious direct report is, in fact, “interested in,” and, “geared toward management,” and not just “going through the motions, and thinking that she’s been at the organization a certain number of years so it’s time for a promotion.” The best way to find out is to ask her. “Say, ‘Do you want to be in management? What’s your view of what that means? And what makes you think you would be good for that kind of role?’” Of course, notes Hill, you must “pay attention to what the person has done, not just what she says.” Ask yourself, “Have I ever seen an instance where this candidate took on a leader-like role, not just a star performer role?” You should also try to figure out whether the person has “the right motivation to want to lead,” which Hill defines as the desire to “shape the context and coach others.”
Hill then recommends finding out what other management experiences the person has had. After all, roles like captaining a college field hockey team or editing a school literary magazine provide valuable leadership experience. She also suggests asking, “How do you spend your time outside of work? Perhaps this person volunteers and recently ran a campaign for a nonprofit. That shows she likes to mobilize others and lead.” Having the experience is key, but you’re also looking for evidence of growth, says Ranieri. “It’s important to test the person on his people skills and self-knowledge,” she says. The goal is to identify, “how he inspires others to work hard and give it their best. Ask, ‘What made you believe you were successful in that role?’”
Test organizational know-how
Once you have a sense of the aspiring manager’s interest level and past experience, you need to get a handle on her “understanding of the organization—its culture, its needs, and where she thinks it’s going,” says Ranieri. “If you think her opinions are inaccurate [or disagree with her assessment], it’s appropriate to push back or at least continue the conversation,” she says. “Maybe you will learn something.” Raneiri suggests asking the candidate to provide examples of current managers who are successful and—without naming names—cite ways in which other executives could improve. Your goal is judge whether this candidate understands the role and find out how she would run this particular team. It’s also important to evaluate the candidate’s contextual intelligence or CQ, says Hill. “Can he see the big picture? Can he connect the dots? Can he think systemically?” CQ, according to Hill, is a critical component of leadership “given the complexity of management today. Without it, you have trouble prioritizing and thinking about what your group should be working on, not just what it could be working on.”
Seek other opinions
Even if the ultimate hiring decision is yours, Ranieri suggests you discuss the prospective manager’s potential with other colleagues and fellow team leaders. Your inquiry needn’t be stealth. Ranieri recommends asking the candidate for references by saying something like, “‘I would like to talk to other people who’ve seen you act in a managerial way.’ This gives the individual time to seek out colleagues and remind them of examples [that speak to] his management potential.” It’s imperative, says Hill, to “solicit feedback from a range of individuals” in the business. She recommends paying special attention to what the candidate’s close associates have to say. “Maybe the bosses are happy, but peers tell a different story,” she says. That’s valuable information.
It’s also important to observe your ambitious report in action, says Ranieri. Notice whether she is “a person who comes to staff meetings and has ideas not only about her tasks but also about other things going on in the organization.” In other words: does she have a vision for the company and “is she someone who wants to have a broader reach?” Think about your impressions of this person. Is she curious? Is she a learner? When she faced setbacks, did she exhibit resilience? Who does she go to for assistance? Is she a loner or does she have a network? If you don’t see evidence of the traits you’re looking for or you remain uncertain of her capabilities, Hill suggests providing “little experiences” that will prepare her for a leadership role. You might, for instance, ask your report to lead an upcoming project. Or suggest she spearhead a new initiative. “Encourage the person to take the opportunity to practice these skills,” she says.
Heed red flags
When evaluating management potential, there are certain negative characteristics to be on the lookout for, according to Hill. Beware of those who are not open to feedback. And think twice about candidates “who very rarely take into account other people’s points of view.” Try to determine whether or not the person exhibits professional courage. “If he won’t stretch himself, to me that shows he is not ambitious enough,” she says. Also look out for those who are not generous. “A person who doesn’t work well with other people and who thinks he’s smarter than, or better than, others,” does not make for a good manager. “You want leaders who give credit freely, who acknowledge the achievements of others, who don’t punish people for their foibles, and who are willing to help.”
The thing is, “no one is going to score a perfect 10,” says Hill. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re “measuring a person’s potential” and determining whether someone is ready to be a boss isn’t a perfect science. Ranieri points out that it’s also helpful to remember your own experience. “Think back to when you took on your first managerial role or your first big project,” she says. “Maybe you weren’t sure you could do it. But someone took a leap of faith on you. Even if you weren’t 100% successful the first time, you eventually got there.” Besides, if you do decide to promote this ambitious colleague, she won’t be jumping without a safety net. “It’s your job to help other people develop.”
Principles to Remember
- Ask the candidate what she thinks management entails and how she would manage a team.
- Try to evaluate a candidate’s people skills, including empathy and self-knowledge.
- Get a sense of the candidate’s grasp of the organization by asking her how she views its culture, needs, and direction.
- Overlook a candidate’s management experiences outside of work; leading an athletic team or a squad of volunteers provides solid leadership practice.
- Ignore red flags. If a person isn’t curious or doesn’t work well with others, reconsider his candidacy.
- Forget that someone earlier in your career showed faith in you. If you believe the candidate has the potential and talent to lead, help her develop.
Case Study #1: Measure the candidate’s interest in management and solicit feedback on his performance
Erick Tai, head of engineering and co-founder at Reflektive, the San Francisco-based agile performance management software company, says he tries to gauge his employees’ interest in management on their very first day on the job.
“When people start on the team, I ask them, ‘What are your personal goals? What would you like to put on your resume here in the next two years?’ This makes their goals, such as management, natural to talk about in one-on-one meetings.”
When “Rob,” was hired as an engineer, he answered Erick’s questions by saying he was interested in management.
Over time, Erick watched Rob. He noticed that Rob was a “pragmatic thinker” and that he put his team’s needs above his own. During a one-on-one meeting, Erick broached the subject again. “I said, ‘Rob, you’re doing great. And I think you could be a great manager. Is that something that you’re still interested in?’”
Rob said he wanted to make the leap. To ensure that Rob was indeed ready, Erick says he created opportunities for him to interact with team members from different departments and to lead projects and guide younger engineers. He then paid close attention to the results.
“[I saw how Rob] created processes that made his teammates more effective,” says Erick. “He guided projects across multiple team members to completion, knowing that there was a business goal we were trying to achieve. And he was very aware of why his work, and the work of those around him, mattered to the company deadlines.”
Erick also solicited feedback on Rob’s style from other colleagues. “Oftentimes, we as managers don’t see the day-to-day interaction between our different team members,” he says. “One coworker highlighted how great Rob is at communicating technical situations in a non-technical way. Another told me how patient he was with their team. Having the insight as to how Rob treated people—not just his manager—is important.”
Rob got the promotion and is doing very well in his new role. “Today Rob is running critical areas of our system—mentoring other engineers and nurturing their own leadership qualities.”
Case Study #2: Note red flags and observe how a candidate involves and inspires colleagues
When Marcy Fetzer—a principal consultant at DecisionWise, the Springville, Utah-based company that focuses on employee engagement—assesses candidates for leadership roles, she looks for evidence that they appreciate the importance of an empathetic and participative culture.
For Marcy, one of the biggest red flags is an aspiring manager who doesn’t effectively make use of his colleagues. “I have seen many individual contributors who are superstars but don’t have the ability to work through others and multiply others’ potential,” she says.
Recently, she evaluated a member of her team, “Sean,” for a potential supervisory position. Sean had impressed Marcy with his “personal drive” and “passion” for his job, and he told her that he was “hypothetically” interested in a leadership role should one arise.
Not too long after that, a job that involved directing a large team opened up in Sean’s division. To determine whether or not Sean was ready for it, Marcy gave him an important assignment and then carefully observed how he handled it. The task involved building a custom training program for the team he might one day manage.
Sean spent many hours beyond the requirements of his regular workweek to “meet and exceed the expectation of the assignment,” according to Marcy. He was not shy about asking colleagues for help and feedback. “There was a great moment of honesty where he said [to his team], ‘I could use some additional guidance and even a hand on building this.’”
Marcy says the finished product showed Sean and the team’s “collaborative effort” because it “incorporated others’ suggestions and participation.”
Sean’s “initiative and engagement in the work,” served as motivation to her and fellow colleagues. “That is what I want to see in leaders: someone who takes something, makes it greater, and inspires others along the way.”
Sean got the promotion.
By Rebecca Knight