To Spot Future Leadership Stars, Think Small

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Identifying and cultivating the next generation of leadership stars is a significant challenge for many organizations.

Companies know they have to do it but figuring out just how is the real mind teaser.
No doubt that’s why 31% of companies cite ‘identifying future leaders’ as their biggest concern according to a study by Right Management.

But before you leap into action wildly anointing your next crop of leadership talent, keep in mind that quality, not quantity, is the key to putting the future of your company in the right hands.

In fact, according to the DDI Global Leadership Forecast, identifying too many high potential leaders may have a negative impact on employee engagement rates.

The study revealed that organizations with a greater number of ‘identified high potentials’ (more than 35%) experience up to 33% lower engagement among those earmarked as future leaders.

And we all know how fast disengaged people start heading out the door. So if you’re trying to stack your odds of hitting on the next big thing by throwing more names into the ring, it’s time for Plan B.

But spotting the next generation of leadership talent is trickier than it seems since current performance may not correlate to future potential in leadership roles.

Leadership is about being able to make a connection, influencing others and building a community around yourself. Often, the actions that spring from those abilities don’t shout. They whisper.

They are the small, subtle but critical actions that build on themselves daily. And if you’re looking for them, you’ll get your clues as to the people you might want to pay close attention to.

If you want to truly spot future leaders, think small. Here are some micro action ‘whispers’ to look for:

Do they hold the door open for others?

People who are as considerate of the cleaning staff in your building as they are of the senior vice president display a high level of human connection that will serve them well in a leadership role. Look for people who send messages of sympathy or congratulations when colleagues experience a significant life event, who know your kids names, and who compliment a teammate’s new hair style.

Connection and trust build over time and daily acts of consideration go a long way in creating both.

Is their micro language positive or aggressive?

Our everyday language can subtly value, devalue, encourage or discourage our colleagues.

Leadership Speaker Sandi Coryell snap fingersI worked with a senior executive who had a habit of referring to her team members as kids – “Ok, kids, what we have to do now is…” With executive coaching, her employees revealed they believed that she was dismissive, rude, and belittling by labelling them ‘kids.’ What was seemingly innocuous had a big impact on her ability to build strong relationships with her team.

Observe who treats the waitstaff in a restaurant with respect and who starts snapping their fingers and pointing to their empty water glass. They’re sending you signals.


Do they favor face-to-face communication?
While it’s amusing to talk about how tough it is not to be able to look at your messages because you’ve been forced to put your phone in a pile in the middle of the lunch table, people with star potential easily unplug when the option is to have a face-to-face uninterrupted conversation. Look for people who instinctively put away their technology when talking to others.

Do they jump into action when help is needed?
Effective leaders roll their sleeves up and do what needs to be done, even if the task is seemingly menial. Standing in the lunch room watching a co-worker clean up the coffee they spilled on the floor rather than rushing in to get paper towels to help them clean it up is not the behavior of a natural leader.

I once watched a female executive race to clean up a drink she had spilled while a male executive sat at the table laughing at the scene. That small moment was a big red flag of poor leadership potential despite a strong performance record.

Look for people who leap into action when an opportunity to help others arises. It’s a great indication that they can feel others’ pain and they will act in a way that puts others in front of their own comfort and self interest.

Leadership Speaker Sandi Coryell identifying future leaders

Do they pay attention to the needs of their co-workers?
Here’s an example: I had flown 10 hours to London to meet with a team of senior executives I didn’t know. I was feeling the effects of jet lag but didn’t say anything. The managing director quietly got up from his chair mid meeting and adjusted the thermostat. I looked at him as if to say, “thanks, how did you know I was freezing?” He just said, “I know sometimes when one flies a long distance, their body temperature is low so I just wanted to make sure you were comfortable.”

A good leader notices the needs of their people and takes action.

Do they have an experimental nature?

Look for subtle clues that your people are willing to experiment. If they have a playful fashion sense, enjoy trying new foods, or favor unusual vacation destinations, it’s likely they are open, flexible, and creative – all valuable leadership traits that can be hard to identify in day-to-day work. It’s not a one size fits all world and people who are willing to experiment are ones to watch.

Develop your eye for spotting these everyday micro actions that indicate high potential, and you’ll be primed to cultivate the next generation of leadership talent.

What leadership micro actions have you spotted lately?


Sandi Coryell
Keynote Speaker and Leadership Consultant Sandi Coryell works with leaders who want to bring out the best in their teams and themselves so that they can improve their creativity, teamwork, and bottom line. For Speaking or Consulting inquiries, please contact Sandi at 818-288-3483 or email at

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