How to Spot Your Next CEO

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The news that Pret a Manger’s CEO will step down in September is as notable as the news of the man who is set to replace him. Panos* Christou started out his career in McDonald's before rising through the ranks of Pret a Manger. Rather than hiring in external talent, the company chose to appoint someone who knew the business inside and out, and we salute them for that.

Of course, we don’t know the specifics of the selection process and make the assumption that somebody in the talent development team spotted him as someone with potential and provided development opportunities to enable his career progression within the business. In his role as COO, he took time to study Advanced Business Management at Harvard — something that is admirable and would have been challenging without the support of these employers.
This led to a discussion in the office around how talent departments might find, and then nurture, future CEOs when the job they’re doing at the moment isn’t terribly CEO-like

Alternative indicators of success

People won’t always have the opportunity to demonstrate their CEO potential when their current role is significantly different. And this is particularly the case for people on the lower rungs of the career ladder. Therefore, looking at standard CEO performance metrics won’t give you too much of a clue. Look instead at other indicators of potential:

  • Mindset: Are they thinking about the bigger picture and long-term goals? How to help the business succeed? Or are they trying to simply get through the day without too much grief? Look for people who are able to rise above the daily grind and think about ways to improve productivity, customer satisfaction and, of course, profits.
  • Behaviour: Do they see solutions or only problems? Do they help motivate those around them or do they sometimes get bogged down in negativity? Future CEOs could be the ones challenging traditional working methods and silo thinking.
  • Self-awareness: Do they understand what they’re good at and what needs improvement? And are they prepared to put the work in to develop their strengths and strengthen their development areas? A high level of self-awareness, combined with the willingness to change, learn and grow, is half the battle.

We like to use a model that looks at someone’s current abilities, their aspirations, and their level of engagement. If they are highly engaged and aspire to move up the career ladder, then investment in their development is definitely worthwhile; if not, all the talent in the world may not be enough to push them over the line.

A question of culture

Once you’ve identified talented employees with the potential to one day lead the company, the next step is to make sure they stick around! Businesses with the right culture are much more likely to retain top talent, so it’s important to make sure that the culture is there to ensure your top talent want to remain with you. If your organisation has a high turnover rate, that’s something you’ll want to tackle urgently — there’s no point in preparing someone for succession only to lose them to a competitor. 

While we’re on the subject of culture, one thing to assess is how closely a person matches your current leadership’s cultural vision — if it’s working well, of course. If not, do they have the vision and understanding to shape the future culture of your organisation? And are they aware of their own role within that culture? This all links back to their self-awareness, determination, and drive, which we talked about above.

Don’t overlook people who look ‘difficult’ at first glance — they are less likely to accept the status quo, and that may be just what you’re looking for.

How to nurture your brightest prospects

Once you’ve identified your pool of future execs, you then need to look at ways to find stretch opportunities for those individuals and take the time to understand their motivations so that you can create opportunities for them to excel and keep them engaged.
One way to do this is to support them with career coaching. Offering career coaching with a trusted adviser can really help an employee understand their goals and ambitions, and arm them with the tools they need to go after them. 

Leadership development training can help you build resilience and effective decision-making — and this is something your current crop of execs can benefit from as well. But if your issue is knowing quite where to start in the first place, you might want to look into taking on some specialist talent management and succession planning support.

Ready to do some CEO spotting?

So in summary, there are three key steps to successfully identify a person with CEO potential:

  • Look for qualities beyond their basic job description such as mindset, behaviour, and self-awareness. Even employees who are starting out in their careers can show early promise in these areas.
  • Assess their ability to gel with the culture you have and then take that and shape it into something even better. Are they willing to challenge the status quo?
  • Develop a plan to help them stretch, grow and excel. Bring in expert outside support, if this is something that’s likely to overstretch your talent development team.

Good luck discovering your very own Panos Christou! 
* ‘Panos’ means ‘bread’ in a number of languages. We love a bit of nominative determinism here.

About Kate Keaney

Kate Keaney

Kate Keaney is a passionate and highly experienced people and business performance expert with an extensive background in HR and business consulting. She was appointed CEO of Connor in 2018 and is now leading 150 experts through Connor’s organisational re-design consulting and outplacement services.

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