5 considerations when evaluating a candidate's leadership potential

I’ve been leading leadership-level searches for over ten years and it’s remarkable that in the last five years nearly every single role I’ve handled has involved a clear succession requirement. In other words ‘promotability’ into the next role up. And in every case, it has been explicitly stated what that next role is. For example, vice president to business unit leader, sales and marketing director to board-level director or product manager to general manager.

So, I’ve effectively been searching for candidates for two roles. I can speak at length on the challenges that involves.  However, from a candidate perspective, it also involves leadership potential or learning agility assessments. I’d advise anyone aspiring to board level leadership to familiarise themselves with this approach as it summarises what many destination employers are looking for.

Academics working with human capital consultancy Korn Ferry have pioneered this leadership potential approach. In their words, “Learning agile individuals excel at absorbing information from their experiences and then extrapolate from those to navigate unfamiliar situations. They are often described as flexible, resourceful, adaptable, and thoughtful—in short, an ideal fit for mission-critical roles.” Those being assessed are looked at in the following five ways:

Mental agility 

Thinking critically to penetrate complex problems and expanding possibilities by making fresh connections.

People agility

Understanding and relating to other people, as well as tough situations to harness and multiply collective performance.

Change agility

Enjoying experimentation, being curious and effectively dealing with the discomfort of change.

Results agility

Delivering results in first-time situations by inspiring teams, and exhibiting a presence that builds confidence in themselves and others.


Being reflective and knowing themselves well; understanding their capabilities and their impact on others.

Korn Ferry has also found that those who have high learning agility (above the 67th percentile) fall into seven distinct categories. In short, high potential types can vary hugely from each other.

They drew out a subsample of 1,245 individuals who would be classified as “high learning agile,” those with scores at or above the 67th norm percentile. The research indicated around two-thirds fall into one of seven distinct profiles. That subsample was then analysed looking at scores on the four factors of learning agility: mental agility, people agility, change agility and results agility.

Understanding the natural strengths not only helps employers make strategic decisions about job assignments, but also helps candidates be aware of how they might come across in assessments and interviews.

Problem solvers 

Given an ambiguous problem, they explore its complexities, develop a notion of what will work, and then set about resolving the situation with a mix of drive and resourcefulness. Along the way, they seek to involve others and leverage their abilities. This is the most frequently occurring of the seven profiles and most closely fits the “classic” definition of a high learning agile person. 

Thought leaders

Determined seekers of insight and truth, they ask hard questions and strive to make difficult connections. They are committed to seeing progress; however, they tend to function best behind the scenes versus being out-front champions for change. 


They have a clear sense of where they need to be and are determined to make it there, sometimes by whatever means are available. Laser-focused and confident in their approach, Trailblazers are at home where others fear to tread. 


Like the hero in a classic tale, individuals fitting this profile have a flair for saving the day in grand style. They can handle difficult situations with humour and grace. By focusing primarily on people and results, they also allow others an opportunity to shine. 


Pillars put considerable effort into crafting and implementing highly refined solutions, but tend to focus more on creating an improvement than making a dramatic change. They lead with a harmonious blend of insightful thinking, focused action, and an open, inclusive manner. 


When the stakes are high and the situation calls for smooth people skills, these are the individuals you want to be at the forefront. They are deft at sizing up others and can adjust their style to fit the moment.


Achievement-oriented, extremely hardworking, and able to inspire others, Energisers establish larger-than-life, almost iconic reputations. Energizers put together a committed and capable team and always get the job done.

Feel free to speak to one of our consultants if you would like some more help or advice on 00 44 1829 732374.