How to assess leadership potential on the cheap

strawberryYes, I know. I’m not the greatest businessman – I’m giving away something for free that Floreat charges money for. Fear not though, I haven’t completely lost it. This is not THE secret sauce (to be fair, I couldn’t give out the recipe in a post even if I tried – it takes years of practice and reflection to be a profiler) but it does amount to some helpful ideas on how to get a handle on an individual’s potential.

*This should NOT be used as a definitive guide and methodology used to make decisions about someone’s future. (For that you will definitely need the special sauce).

The following are some ground rules that I find helpful to have in mind in order to keep my own thinking fresh and useful for the people I help.


Leadership potential is not about “professionalism”. I mentally vomit every time I hear that word. Being “professional” is a means-nothing word, and often a values-laden and confusing term that serves to divide people of different cultural groups. When I profile someone, I don’t care about the bells and whistles – how they’re dressed, how well they do small talk, who they’re friends with. Potential can be found in the most unlikely places (and we have!) – the well-educated and wealthy, non-educated and poor. It doesn’t matter and there is no correlation. Forget professionalism.


It IS about language – not in the sense of breadth of vocabulary – but in the sense that the way someone uses language, in the right setting, is a window into how they think about things. DANGER! This doesn’t mean you get points for talking about a great “strategy”, how you are addressing “stakeholder interests”, how something might be “ubiquitous”, whether someone works “in that space” (shudder….uurgghhh). It is about being able to come up with new ideas and the ability to link those ideas together in new and interesting ways with other interrelated ideas.

Thinking > Action

Potential is not just thinking about things. What is really interesting (and part of why I do this work) is that the potential we assess is the ability to think, plan and do. It’s about being able to analyse a situation, come up with some creative solutions, make a plan, implement it effectively, adapt it if need be (and it will nearly always need to change) when the situation changes, learn from all that and then repeat it again. And of course the drive to keep going despite adversity and see it succeed.


It’s also all about balance. Have you ever met someone who is amazing at thinking about things but can never quite bring themselves to do anything with it? Ever? That’s a sign that the person favours what we call “pure thinking” over “applied thinking”. An excellent and fine quality to have if you are in an analytical, advice-giving role. Not so great for a project manager. Those people who are able to balance the thinking and doing aspects – and do that at a level of complexity that matches their work (number and type of variables as well as ambiguity into time and space) – are more likely to be successful leaders.

How complex can you get? Very complex. Special sauce complex.

Scared to know? Get to know your real potential (AKA swallow some cement and harden up)

Do something that scares you.

I have read a lot of books about personal and career development. But one tip I like, is “do something that scares you every day”. No, I’m not advocating running across a highway or swallowing window cleaner (that would be cheating anyway because you can predict that would have to end badly). I’m sure you can name some things that you hold back on and just can’t or won’t do, perhaps you’ve been holding back for years.

Some common ones I’ve come across:

  • I really want to give some feedback to my boss about her behaviour
  • I REALLY want to tell my father that I actually don’t want to be a dentist (apologies to all the dentists, it’s a noble career! And just an example)
  • I should call that girl in the office and tell her how I feel
  • I really should quit my job and do something I’m ‘passionate’ about* (passion and what I think it means, why it can be important and why it’s not necessarily important at all is the subject of another post, stay tuned)

Why don’t we have the courage to just do it?

My guess is it’s generally because we are unsure of the outcome. She could say, “oh hi I’m so glad you called me, I would love to go out with you!” but she could also say “go away you weirdo” and avoid you, and tell everyone in the office that you asked her out. In short, you’ve made a judgement that the perceived risks are too high compared to the potential benefit.

Ok an extreme example. I’ll get to the point now. It’s about work. First a little bit of theory and an example.

In any organisation, work varies in complexity (by that I mean, the time horizon for different tasks varies, there are a different number of variables and those variables relate to one another differently over time) – and we all have a varying degree of capacity to deal with this complexity. (Re-read that paragraph if you like, it’s important to what comes next).

Say I joined a bank as a junior customer service officer. My focus in that role would be on resolving customer problems as they come to me on a daily basis. Let’s say I’m enjoying that and developing in the role over a few years, and I’m now put in charge of a team of junior customer service officers. We’re all doing valuable work (there’s no doubt, where would a bank be without people helping customers?) but as the manager of the team, I’m now thinking of a longer timeframe and more variables that impact on my own and the team’s performance. I may need to think about how to fill a roster over a 6 month period, how to resolve tricky customer problems that cross over into the work of few different teams and even who might be the next to fill my shoes.

This isn’t new stuff but lots of people won’t have heard of their work described in this way before.

My proposition is that (and I’m not alone), we all have different levels of ability and comfort with complexity. In my role as a junior customer service officer, I could have enjoyed dealing with the daily customer queries for a long period of time, but I might be starting to see the same thing over and over. I might be wondering what my manager does all day up there. I could even be wondering, do I have what it takes to be successful in another role if I do get promoted?

This is important, because what organisations should value a great deal more than they do, is the ability of people not only to understand complexity, but to make good judgments and act productively in relation to complexity. It’s not enough to just “get it”, we generally get paid in roles to make judgements on things and take action.

In short, organisations should take a lot of notice of who can make that transition successfully. Who can put the ability to understand complexity together with the ability to manage it well.

That’s why I’m not a huge fan of personality testing, values inventories and the like as the ONLY way to help someone with their career. And I don’t mean everyone should get an IQ test (don’t get me started!! Seriously, I’m warning you!!!)

Ok, so “do something that scares you”. I’m getting to that.

What if there was a way to get some really good insights into whether you could take that step up in your career. In other words, get a good reading on your very own leadership potential. Wouldn’t you like to know?

There’s good news and bad news. I always prefer bad news first so here goes.

  • Potential assessment can be a nerve-wracking and challenging process (like giving your manager negative feedback, like the few seconds as the phone rings before that girl in the office answers).
  • It brings out things about yourself that could be confronting.
  • There is no way to prepare (at least, in my view there shouldn’t be a way to prepare, apart from a good night’s sleep).
  • You could be disappointed.
  • You’ll need to pay some money to go through it.

Here’s the good news.

  • Potential assessment is nerve-wracking and challenging – that is a good thing. That means you will come out the other side a wiser person. I can assure you there won’t be any damage, however it will be a great development experience for you.
  • You will see new sides to yourself – and that will be confronting. That’s good because you’ll have almost no choice but to learn something.
  • You can’t prepare – so no study needed, just a few hours and a quiet spot.
  • It is also fun and inherently interesting.
  • It will give you some important insights when you do it, and it will get more and more important as you progress in your career (i.e. you can keep drawing on what you learnt about yourself throughout your whole career).

Ok you could be disappointed.

You might fancy yourself as CEO material. Someone could have said those exact words to you. “Sam, you’re CEO material”. Then some guy with a fancy technique does some test with you and then tells you that you don’t actually have CEO-level potential. Please don’t be offended, but if you do want to be a CEO, would you agree and glumly accept your fate if I gave you that news? I doubt it. It’s data. It’s not the meaning of life.

It may actually be the best thing that’s happened to you for a long time. So go eat some cement and harden up (please, not literally).

Planning your career? Look at your level of work

2012-01-05 10.51.50I first thought seriously about “career development” when working in a big company overseas. At the time I was “in a period of personal growth” (i.e. stressed, confused, anxious) – wondering whether I was on the right path at work, why some things I was doing left me feeling completely unsatisfied and others energised me – despite the fact that the work I was doing all seemed the same. I was working in a very specialised field on some interesting things but was struggling with a question we all have in our careers: what’s my future?* Where should I be heading and – without writing anything in stone – what should I be doing now to get there?

From the outside, everything looked like success. I had a law degree, practiced law for a while in Sydney and Canberra, worked for the government on interesting cutting-edge policy and legislation to do with telecoms, privacy, social media and law enforcement. My credibility among other people, my family and friends, was pretty high. But my instincts told me something was wrong. I needed to find some answers about myself that were different and challenging to what I already knew. I knew I didn’t want to be doing this forever, but what else could I do? So I began a process to explore the individual career development market in order to find models and techniques that might give me some clues on where I could head.

I tried (and spent!) my way through a range of things and at one point felt as if I’d never have the answer I needed. 

I needed to ask the right question.  

The question I started out asking was, what is the perfect role for me? What industry am I best suited to that is a good match for my skills and experience? In fact, the question I should have asked was: What *type* or *level* of work do I find most satisfying now? And when I say ‘level’, I’m talking about complexity – the number of variables, the timeline to completion, how ‘big’ or ‘small’ the problems are. And of course, what type of work is going to satisfy me in the future.

What I realised were these 3 key lessons about myself and my career:

There is no ‘right’ industry for me.

There is a type (level of complexity) of work that I feel comfortable with and energised by right now.

There is a level of work I should be aiming at in the future in order to be satisfied by my work over the course of my career.

I will be forever grateful that these lessons were revealed to me at a relatively early stage in my career. And I’m now lucky enough to help others based on where and how they feel most energised. And that’s the great value of our work – what we do is to open up people’s eyes to the possibilities of looking beyond the nuts and bolts of “their” industry and their current role to what they can achieve in the future.

Now let us be straight with you. Talentfinder is not an easy ‘tick and flick’ exercise or online test. It’s not warm and fuzzy either. It’s a conversation about how you think and act. It’s all about how you make sense of complexity and trust me, while we do apply some pressure, you will find it interesting and very helpful. But the most important part of the whole process is the conversation we have afterwards, those moments that we hope to flick a switch and open you up to possibilities you didn’t think were possible. I am still finding value in my Talentfinder profile – and that was years ago!

So if you are curious about what we do, steel yourself and get in touch. You’ll be glad you did.

*Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organisations tells us that there are 3 questions we all have about our work – What am I expected to do and why? How am I going? What’s my future?