Human Resources Blog - Spark Hire

How To Assess A Candidate’s Leadership Potential

It’s not hard to find an employee who will eventually advance into a management role. It’s easy to train someone how to tackle budgets, hire when open positions become available, and land new clients. However, there is a drastic difference between a manager and a leader, and it’s essential to recognize the distinction. 

You don’t just want someone who can complete spreadsheets and fill out paperwork. Instead, you need someone with true leadership potential to execute your business’s overarching vision and bring the brand firmly into the future. 

As you’re hiring, focus on these components to ensure you’re assessing a candidate’s leadership potential correctly:

Their ability to earn respect from their team

Someone who is a manager without leadership potential will expect the team to respect them right off the bat just because of their title. But true leaders understand something so trivial doesn’t guarantee respect. 

During the interview, consider asking the candidate how they plan to earn the respect of the team. Do they intend on standing up at the front of the room and spouting orders? Or will they create an open dialogue where everyone can contribute ideas?

Their energy levels

Often, the most influential leaders possess contagious energy and enthusiasm. If they come in each day revived and ready to work, this positivity spreads to the rest of the office. However, if this person shows up with stress levels raging, ready to lash out at the first person they see, they’ll contribute to a hostile work environment

It’s too easy for job seekers to tell you that they’re always positive and excited to show up to the office. Instead of taking this response at face value, ask them questions that let them prove this leadership potential to you. Inquire about the most exciting thing they’ve done over the past year. This could include a trip they’ve taken, a new hobby or skill they’ve learned, or a pet project they’ve finally devoted their attention toward. Hearing them talk about this will give you a good insight into their genuine passion and energy levels. 

Their response when they don’t have the answers

Great leaders aren’t afraid to ask for help. They have no shame in admitting when they don’t know something. Rather than blindly trying to make decisions when they lack information, they want to go to the proper sources to gather data for an informed choice. To find out if a candidate has this ability, ask the following question: “How would you proceed if you find yourself in a situation where you simply don’t know what to do?” 

If they tell you they’d make it up or just pretend and hope for the best, you know they might not possess the leadership potential and be the ideal candidate for a role within your business. However, if they explain that they would admit their area of weakness and consult with those who have the necessary expertise, they have the traits of a strong leader. 

The right leader believes in the importance of learning and developing, no matter how established they are in their career. Therefore, hearing them speak about continuing education, attending conferences, and obtaining further certifications is essential.

Their ability to adapt to a changing environment

No matter what industry you’re in, change is inevitable. If a leader runs their business the same way they did decades ago, the company will plateau. When you’re hiring for management roles, you want to ensure that the people you’re putting in these positions are willing to pivot when necessary. 

Because of how change permeates through all industries, it’s essential to touch on how this person tackles an evolving business. How do they continue to grow as a professional? What do they do to ensure that they’re staying on top of new trends, technology, and industry players so they’re never left behind?

The motivators that drive them

True leaders don’t just accept the role for the perks and the job title; they’re mission-driven and see a greater purpose beyond just a salary boost, extra vacation days, and a company car. Before you put someone in a management role, you need to find out what drives them. This is especially important during particularly stressful times when they may need to come in on the weekends or work long hours. 

Ask the candidate what’s appealing to them about this position. If they passionately reference reasons like wanting to make a difference, loving to inspire others, knowing the significance of having a great mentor, they’re already showcasing their leadership potential. If the response is more wishy-washy and points to self-centered reasoning, you may want to question whether this individual is an ideal fit for the position.

Their relationship with direct reports

Many people understand staff has to support ideas and vision to lead effectively. However, some people — particularly those newer to a leadership role — get caught up in the balance between earning their team’s respect and trying to befriend their employees. 

Direct reports strongly benefit from feedback. A report from SurveyMonkey reveals that a culture of giving and receiving gratitude improves job performance, makes work more fun, and offers a lift to motivation. But there’s a difference between appreciating and befriending. 

To gauge if a candidate understands this critical need for separation between colleagues and best friends, inquire during the interview about the fine line of direct reports respecting or fearing a leader. Gauge their feedback on soliciting positive relationships with their direct reports and how they go about achieving such relationships.  

Their ability to assess and use employees’ strengths 

When you’re involved in running a business, you have to learn how to let your employees shine. If you’re trying to put a highly creative, imaginative person in a very cut and dry role, you may end up frustrated when they spend too much time daydreaming and forget to fill out a spreadsheet you need by 5 p.m. 

On the flip side, if a leader asks for a few killer ideas for Q3 from a person who loves functionality and numbers, it’s no surprise that they’ll get several lackluster thoughts about Customer Appreciation Day and nothing worth presenting to the rest of the team. 

They say you shouldn’t try to jam a square peg into a round hole, which is true for guiding a team. Each employee within the organization will have strengths, weaknesses, passions, and things they just can’t stand to do. A candidate with strong leadership potential will know how to recognize a team member’s strengths and utilize them effectively within the office.

Their ability to assess risks effectively

A skilled leader knows how to calculate risk. If they never try something new, it’s tough for the business to grow. Simultaneously, if they’re constantly putting the company on the line just because the gamble might one day pay off, the entire brand suffers. 

To determine whether this individual has an appropriate level of risk-taking in them, ask about the biggest risk they’ve taken or considered taking. Try to get a sense of what their thought process was like as they decided whether to take this chance and what they did to reduce the likelihood of failure. 

Those who shoot first and ask questions later are a poor choice for a leadership role, as they can take the company down a dangerous path with their poorly planned decisions. However, those who carefully weigh the pros and cons can help the brand grow in a big way.

There are several other key traits to keep an eye out for when you’re looking to hire your company’s next great leader. Beyond the practical skills and experience you want an individual to have as they step into a leadership role, here are some skills to be on the lookout for:

Their positive attitude in good times and bad

Managers influence their team in a significant way. If it’s clear the manager is panicking about the company’s future, the team that reports to this individual will begin to panic, too. If the manager seems uncertain about a decision, it will be hard for direct reports to believe in the choice wholeheartedly. Because of this, a manager must maintain a positive attitude. 

Business gets stressful. There are times of uncertainty and doubt for even the best-run businesses. Your hire must maintain faith in themselves and the brand because this is what’s necessary to keep the rest of the staff feeling positive. When the manager starts to question the company’s effectiveness, so does everyone else.

Their transparency

Some managers are under the impression that they’re a dictator and everyone else in the company is on a “need to know” basis. While it’s true that the business can’t be a real democracy (or else nothing would get done in a timely fashion) and some information is sensitive, keeping employees in the loop is necessary for the business to function smoothly. 

However, according to a 2019 survey conducted by Paychex, almost 75% of employees want more transparency from their employers, and about 30% have left a job due to a lack of transparency regarding job growth. 

Employees shouldn’t hear about acquisitions or sales through trade publications. If there are rumors, address them head-on to keep the gossip mill from working overtime. Good leaders should be upfront with their staff to show them you value them and take their opinions seriously. Keeping them in the dark is a dangerous way to operate, leading to missing out on important employee feedback. 

A top candidate will know the value of checking in with team members regularly to get feedback on what the brand could be doing better and sharing upcoming news. This leadership potential can be uncovered by asking your candidate to walk you through how/when they’d go about sharing news of a <merger, acquisition, change of services, etc>.

Their ability to delegate

Good leaders should have a hand in all aspects of the business, but if they’re trying to do every single thing themselves, they’ll become stretched thin and rendered ineffective. Ideally, managers learn how to delegate appropriately based on employees’ skills. They’re still plugged in and know what’s going on within the company at any given time, but they’re not trying to do each department’s tasks independently. 

It can be nerve-wracking to surrender a bit of control and trust other people to do a job effectively. But when proper attention is given to hiring, this becomes less stressful.

Their creativity

Managers certainly need to assess profit and loss statements and write up business plans, but true leaders think beyond just the financial aspect of their businesses. They’re able to lead with a creative vision in mind. 

The top candidates will have a clear-cut idea about what that business should stand for, and each plan they put into place reflects this more excellent vision. They will infuse creativity into every aspect of their job, whether it’s problem-solving, team building, or landing new clients. Too, they don’t forget that it’s OK to have a little fun at the office. In fact, this is recommended to keep morale high and employees engaged.  

And engagement is especially crucial to consider when hiring for management because 70% of variance in employee engagement experiences is the result of their managers according to 2015 Gallup research

While a strong resume is necessary to identify a skilled leader, don’t overlook abilities they demonstrate off paper that reveal how they can bring the team together. Anyone can delegate, but it takes a particular skill to unite and motivate the unique blend of individuals working together. 


Lauren Levine

Lauren Levine is a copywriter/blogger who contributes to a number of magazines and websites including The Frisky, USA Today, and others. She also authors her own blog called Life with Lauren. She loves cooking, anything on the E! network, and is trying to convince herself that running isn't so bad.

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