How to Spot Growth-Focused Future Leaders for Your Leadership Pipeline

Does leadership potential come down to character, intellect, interests, all of the above—or is there a secret ingredient that’s harder to define? And how do you know whether you have the talent in your organization already, or you need to bring them in?

“It could take decades for someone to become a CEO after their first job,” according to Guangrong Dai, Senior Director of Research at Korn Ferry Institute. So the earlier you have a robust succession plan in place, the better.

And it’s not just about leadership. If your business has growth as a medium-term goal, you need to make sure your future leaders have the traits needed to fulfill that ambition.

It can be difficult to predict who will make a great future leader, and far too many organizations rely on gut instinct. When those people fail to deliver, the organization loses out.

But now there are tools that can help. The Drucker Institute, which partners with Korn Ferry on research, developed five dimensions that can predict corporate success:

  • Customer satisfaction
  • Employee engagement and development
  • Innovation
  • Social responsibility
  • Financial strength

Using these as a starting point, Korn Ferry and Drucker undertook a three-year study of more than 20,000 CEOs, C-suite leaders, and senior executives at more than 670 large, publicly traded US companies. The goal was to pinpoint which qualities CEOs need to drive success.

What Are the Five Characteristics to Look for in Future Leaders?

While you might assume that one great leader has the same characteristics as the next, our research shows this isn’t the case at all.

Through our analysis of CEOs’ performance over time, we identified several leadership qualities that shine in a growth-led leader. These are different from the qualities needed in a leader committed mainly to customer service, let’s say, or innovation.

For a growth-oriented organization, success in financial strength is the one to watch. On top of that, our research found five key characteristics that predict a leader’s suitability for such a role—and they might surprise you. 

1 Tolerance for Ambiguity and Courage

“If you are specifically looking for leadership for growth, that person’s greatest attribute will be courage,” says Evelyn Orr, Head of CEO and Executive Assessment, North America. “When we studied CEOs who had brought about revenue growth, they all scored very highly in their ‘tolerance for ambiguity.’

“That essentially means they have the courage to make a tough choice without all the information—to prioritize a certain vision or strategy, even if that means something else must be de-prioritized.”

“If you are specifically looking for leadership for growth, that person’s greatest attribute will be courage.”

2 Empathy

Some growth leaders are strategic leaders. Others are crisis or turnaround leaders. Perhaps surprisingly, the second most critical skill within a growth-led leader is empathy.

“The picture our research paints of a growth leader is someone who can share their vision and communicate it well because they are in tune with other people and perspectives,” says Orr.

“They can bring everyone together to inspire and engage them. If you think of a growth-led leader going into a ‘pantry of qualities’ in order to make the perfect recipe, then empathy would be an essential ingredient.”

3 Curiosity

What if…? That’s the important question a growth-led leader should always be asking.

If they are not able to ask questions, have no curiosity about what is possible, and are not open to other ways of doing things, change is almost impossible.

“Truly transformational leaders are confident but also humble. They are open. They are curious. They are ready to listen and to learn,” says Dai.

4 Trust

Trust is a two-way street. While the team must trust their leader, it is just as crucial that the leader trusts the team at all levels of the business.

They need to be willing to empower their team to make the right decisions, come up with solutions, and care about the organization.

5 Adaptability

Adaptability is a key attribute of agility—but this can feel rather abstract. How do you assess someone’s adaptability?

Dai explains just how deep Korn Ferry’s leadership assessment (a combination of psychological testing, interview, and simulation) can drill down.

“We ask, ‘What is the toughest business challenge you’ve tackled?’ and those who admit they felt out of their depth at one time, but went on to investigate, asked questions, and listened, are growth-focused leaders,” he says.

“Those who say they simply solved a problem alone, pushing people aside in the process (i.e. firing staff being their ‘challenge’), do not have the right mindset for growth.”

How Can You Support Future Leaders?

About 15% of the workforce has leadership potential, says Dai, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they're ready to take on the responsibility tomorrow.

“We can identify future leaders who might not be ready now but have potential if given enough opportunity,” he says. “Such team members can grow to become successful executives and CEOs.”

Opportunity is key, agrees Jane Stevenson, Vice Chair, Board & CEO Services. “We did a study on women CEOs, and it was powerful to see there are leadership qualities that you can identify early in a career—at around 30 years of age, in fact.”

“If organizations start identifying mindsets for growth earlier, they can ensure those individuals have opportunities and are placed in roles that require driving growth,” she explains.

She compares it to bodybuilding. “There are people who have the right physique to be able to lift weights, but it doesn't equate to them instantly lifting 100 pounds. They must build that muscle mass and develop the capability to reach their goal.

“What we do is identify those people before they lift the weights, to see aptitude that can be cultivated, and help them become extraordinary.”

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The Path to Growth Leadership

Appointing the right leaders can feel like a gamble, but it can be a much less risky process if your organization is prepared to put in the work.

Stevenson describes it as “art plus science plus experience.” The art, she says, is an individual’s inherent capabilities, but they mean little without the science of assessments and the experience embedded through coaching and development. 

“In other words, if you've got people who have high aptitude and capability, you need to give them experiences that are going to turn them into growth-led leaders,” she explains.

If you’re gearing up for growth, explore Korn Ferry’s succession planning and assessment solutions to create a success profile tailor-made to your business—and its future leaders.