Six fundamental leadership traits—curiosity, courage, perseverance, integrity, confidence, and empathy—might help you identify high-potential staff.
Nearly all new C-level executives find that they will likely have to replace some people on their team and recruit new leaders. As you rebuild your team, what traits and qualities will you look for? What indicators might help you identify higher-potential staff and likely “A” players?
Over 2008–2009, I had the privilege of interviewing a number of leading women CFOs on their journey to leadership (See The journey to CFO: Perspectives from women leaders). Across our interviews, these women identified key traits underlying their success as CFOs. By “trait,” I mean a natural or cultivated characteristic or propensity toward a specific form of behavior.
Building on our initial study and subsequent transition labs we identify six key leadership traits including: curiosity, courage, perseverance, integrity, confidence, and empathy. Some of these traits may be innate―some of our interviewees expressed the belief that they were born with a particular trait―while other traits were developed over time, forged in the crucibles of critical moments and relationships.
Curiosity is both the most surprising and most frequently mentioned trait we discovered across our interviews. Our interviewees’ desire to understand and learn new things helped them to build the diverse experiences that later gave them the foundation to be an accomplished leader. Yet, the importance of curiosity as a critical employee or manager is rarely studied in the management literature. Since our 2009 publication, a number of CFOs I have worked with have noted that curiosity is one of the most important qualities that they look for in recruiting talent. Whether innate or cultivated, curiosity is vital to motivating leaders to pursue experiences and learn lessons that build deeper insights and understanding in an ever-changing knowledge economy.
Courage is the willingness to face uncertainty and perhaps danger. In all of our interviews, interviewees identified critical moments in which they were called upon to be courageous and willingly move into unfamiliar ground in order to go forward. Often, courage is manifested in the willingness to take on new challenges that stretch the individual well beyond what he or she already knows how to do. Courage helped the leaders we interviewed master new skills and experiences critical to their advancement and their personal credibility.
Perseverance (the willingness to work through challenges without giving up) is another trait vital to individual success in both professional and personal contexts. Often, perseverance provides the drive to master a difficult subject or situation. Among our respondents, this willingness to persevere was sometimes learned in childhood. Others work at cultivating this trait, training with determination to excel in an area where they are not naturally gifted, such as a musical instrument or a sport, to achieve a high level of proficiency. Perseverance enabled these executives to undertake challenging and difficult assignments and advance in their chosen professions.
All of our interviewees emphasized the importance of integrity. The trait of “ethically saying what you mean; and doing what you say” is highly desirable not only in a CFO but across the C-suite. Being able to marry the right intentions with right actions provides a foundation for trust within and across an organization. Getting things done with integrity also makes it easier for others to work for and with you.
Confidence is another trait our interviewees highly valued. Confidence does not have to be innate; a calm and self-assured style can be cultivated through practice. Confidence that’s grounded in prior experience and confidence in engaging the unknown are particularly valuable. Leaders expressing confidence can assuage anxieties and make it easier for staff to follow direction.
Empathy—the ability to understand and consider another’s point of view—is also highly valuable for leaders. Empathy can be valuable in testing your point of view against those of others and in avoiding blind spots in decision-making. Furthermore, it can help executives be more effective communicators to, and influencers of, their key stakeholders by driving understanding and helping to find points of convergence that meet each other’s needs.
Many of the above traits align with other findings on the qualities of high-potential talent. Recently, for example, in “21st century talent spotting: Why potential now trumps brains, experience and competencies” (Harvard Business Review June 2014), Claudio Fernandez-Araoz notes five indicators of high potential:
Traditionally, the most used gauges of the above traits are analysis of personal and work histories, reference checks, and interviews. But one other method—observation of the trait—can also be feasibly employed in the recruiting process. For example, an executive walks potential recruits through a manufacturing plant in order to discover what the candidate observes about the plant and what questions they ask about the operations.
The takeaway: When you take on a new executive role, it is very likely you will have to recruit some new members to your team. Recruiting and onboarding of new talent to your team is likely to create significant demands on your time, and success is not always guaranteed. Beyond gauging proficiency in their functional specialization, recruiting to the above traits may help to improve the odds and return on recruiting—helping to identify high-potential, future leaders who are adaptive to changing organizational contexts and needs.