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How can I identify leadership skills in young candidates?

Nicola Batley

Women being picked out of a crowd

Nicola Batley from Thales Learning & Development shows us how to spot the signs of future leaders when interviewing young candidates

Identifying leadership attributes in any candidate is a difficult task, so imagine how difficult it must be to identify it in a young candidate, one who may not have built up much professional experience or demonstrated their skills on a regular basis. However, the young professionals of today will become the business leaders of tomorrow and should be identified and mentored as early as possible in order to retain and develop them.

How can they be identified?

Most candidates can be identified by looking at what they have already achieved, as well as assessing relevant attributes like resilience to setbacks, desire to progress and adaptability to different tasks and challenges. It is important to ascertain whether it is worth taking the time and using up resources on developing them. Finding young candidates that can be trained, though, is more difficult, because they may not have built up the experiences and successes or failures needed to estimate whether their career is progressing in the right way for them to become suitable future leaders. There are a number of different ways in which businesses and organisations can identify leadership attributes in young candidates.

Assessment centres

Many businesses which often hire graduate employees run assessment centres designed to allow young candidates, who may never have had a job before, to showcase their skills and attributes in a business environment via group exercises, presentations, formal tests or simulated exercises that directly relate to the job they would be doing. By examining how candidates conduct themselves during their assessments, organisers can cherry-pick those who display potential leadership skills by reviewing what their particular strengths are, how they act within their teams and throughout their tasks and what sort of leadership style they display.

On-the-job observation

If the candidate is already employed by the company, having them attend an assessment centre may be beneficial if you would like a more structured assessment. Alternatively, you may prefer to observe them in their current role to gauge how they perform on a daily basis and whether there is potential to explore the possibilities of them taking on a position of greater responsibility. This will allow you to assess them as they actually are (especially if they are not notified that they are being considered for a potential leadership role), whereas in an assessment centre candidates might tailor their approach depending on what they think the assessors want to see from them.

Prior experience

In some cases, candidates may not have much (if any) on-the-job experience, but they may have experience gained in other areas. For instance, they might have played key roles on Duke of Edinburgh excursions or captained their school football team, which would usually require them to be responsible, positive and hard-working. Admittedly, you won’t make a decision based solely on exploits like these, but if evidence is lacking a bit professionally then you can often gain extra insight by examining other areas of the candidate’s life.

There are a variety of ways in which you can ascertain if a young candidate possesses leadership attributes that could be developed with the help of a mentor or a coach (or both) in order to turn them into a business leader.

Nichola Batley is the Head of Leadership and Management Capability at Thales Learning & Development. Having worked in the HR and consulting business for over 20 years, in organisations such as American Express, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Bass Plc., a particular interest in learning and development led her to specialise in that area. Nichola is a regular contributor to Enhance – The Magazine for Learning and Development .


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