Look deep enough in your organization and you’ll find them: high-potential employees with strong leadership abilities, poised to one day ascend to pivotal roles. But spotting them can be tough, particularly if your team works in a hybrid or remote-work setting.

Identifying these future leaders is both an art and a science, says Grant Duncan, Managing Director & Sector Lead for Media, Entertainment and Digital EMEA at Korn Ferry. The “science” part is the data that comes out of leadership assessments, which measure the competencies and traits that allow an individual to excel as a leader. “But there’s also a big qualitative piece there,” says Duncan. “There’s the magic that comes from engaging with people as human beings in a face-to-face environment.”

But if that’s the case, then what happens when your workforce is remote?

Spotting future leaders when you rarely (or never) see them in person is more difficult. “Meetings tend to have a transactional dynamic and the interpersonal part becomes much harder,” says Duncan. But it can be done—you just have to be more intentional about it. Keep these tips in mind to help you identify future leaders in a remote or hybrid environment.

Create chances for engagement

Some high potentials will go unnoticed if their only opportunity to shine is during big video calls. “When there are 30 tiles on the screen, and you’re a bit of an introvert or you lack confidence, your ability to speak out is reduced,” says Duncan.

Those quieter types may well be intelligent, motivated and empathetic future leaders, but with insufficient opportunities to reveal their capabilities, you might never know it.

Duncan recommends leaders proactively create opportunities for individual engagement, mentoring, or both, so that nobody gets left behind. For example, leaders can set up an ongoing program where they have one-on-one video calls with a set number of people from around the team every month.

Use data to narrow down your list of potential leaders

Exactly who to prioritize for these one-on-one interactions should be data-driven in order to avoid bias. “The list of employees to focus on might come out of the HR system and quantitative platforms, which help organizations understand who has what it takes to be potentially become a leader and who doesn’t,” he says.

Many organizations screen employees using online assessments, which measure intelligence, motivation, emotional capacity and ability to operate under high levels of uncertainty. These assessments can determine key roles needed for your organization’s success, reveal who is ready to lead now, and identify who has the potential to lead in the future.

Among other benefits, these assessments can provide visibility for remote employees in low-profile departments. Assessment tools can be used at scale and a reasonable cost.

Make interactions meaningful

The monthly meetings with potential future leaders should be more meaningful than functional, with leaders encouraging connection and collaboration. As Duncan puts it, “You can’t think of it as one-way traffic—'Here I am, here’s my allotted half an hour to tell you what’s going on', then a cursory five minutes for questions, then I go.” 

When people are working remotely, “You need to put more thought into it,” he says. “Create the oxygen or the moments where people can interact and engage because you’ve created those opportunities, perhaps in a breakout room which you visit.” Duncan also recommends dropping into virtual working meetings so you can observe how people are performing and who is standing out as a great contributor.

It won’t be long before specific individuals will begin to emerge.

Leadership & Professional Development

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If an in-person opportunity comes up, take it

Online assessments, virtual chats, and observation provide valuable insights, but if the opportunity arises to have face-to-face interactions, it’s wise to take it. 

“It’s a way to see the interpersonal dynamics,” says Duncan. “Things like body language and empathy—these are things you can observe better in person.” The same goes for things like motivation, ambition and fit; in-person conversation and observation are helpful in bringing these factors to light.

Don’t take your eye off the ball

Throughout all interactions with employees, keep in mind the proven, quantifiable characteristics of those with high potential for leadership. They include:

  • Track record of formative experiences
  • Ability to learn from experience
  • Self-awareness
  • Leadership disposition
  • Motivation to be a leader
  • Aptitude for logic and reasoning
  • Managed derailment risks

The clearer the positive signal on each of these attributes, the better the odds for superior performance.

While a remote workforce can undoubtedly create challenges, the ability to access new talent pools will result in a deeper, more diverse workforce—among which high potentials can be identified, coached and trained to help take the company to the next level.

Learn more from Korn Ferry about spotting top talent.