Leadership Talent: How to Spot It if It Is Hidden?


I haven’t written about talent for a while here, yet this is not an indication of reduced importance of the topic in any way. Indeed, the Talent Shortage Survey by ManpowerGroup indicates that in 2016 employers globally reported the highest talent shortage since 2007. Based on the survey data it seems that employers struggle foremost with finding enough applicants for their jobs, followed by the challenges of finding the right competencies and levels of experience. So what do companies do about these challenges? The main answer seems to be ‘upskilling’, as more than half of the surveyed organizations invest in training and development of their existing talents. Interestingly, such focus on developing the existing talent pool has markedly risen even compared to 2015, when only 20% of companies prioritized such initiative. I would argue that this shift towards looking for solutions inside the organization is motivated by both the rapidly changing skill requirements in the global market as well as the harsh competition for external talent. The Manpower professionals suggest that the number of companies, who invest in upskilling of their own employees, will continue to increase.

Looking more specifically into leadership talent, a recent McKinsey article argues that although many companies do indeed rely on development programs, some talent may still remain untapped: the hidden talent.


The case of a hidden leader

According to the McKinsey professionals, there are three main reasons for some leadership talent to be overlooked.

First of all, talent might get lost purely because the organization is big. Certainly, one may argue that being visible and standing out is the very indication of being a leader… However, if we speak about potential leaders, it is likely that several barriers of a large organization (e.g. being a talent in a subsidiary, which is far away from the corporate centre) can influence whether one is getting noticed.

Secondly, there are selection biases we are all prone to. As discussed in one of my previous posts, when we are not paying attention and act on ‘automatic pilot’, we are very quick to judge behaviours that are different from ours as negative, and favour people who are alike. Hence, potential talents that are different from the majority race, gender, cultural background, age and so forth, are also potential victims of discrimination in terms of career opportunities.

Finally, the McKinsey professionals point to the limitations of traditional approaches to screening for talent, namely the narrow top-down lens, when only senior leaders scan for potential leaders in lower company ranks. Naturally, a limited perspective means limited opportunities to be noticed as well.


How to spot a hidden leader?

‘Harvesting’, meaning developing those who are already ‘in picture’ does not solve the abovementioned barriers for hidden leaders. Therefore, the authors suggest hunting, fishing and trawling as additional ways of spotting hidden talent.

To put it metaphorically, hunting is about going to hunt specifically in those woods you normally do not go to. As the McKinsey professionals put it, the idea is ‘explicitly to scan for promising individuals in their unit who are not currently on a list of high potentials’. As a professional hunter would use, I imagine, different ‘prey’ tracking devices, so too can talent management professionals turn to HR technology and personnel databases for conducting extensive search based on some indicators (e.g. subordinate turnover of a respective manager, etc.).

Fishing is about using ‘bait’ to encourage hidden potentials to identify themselves. What is important here is that the ‘bait’ is specifically chosen based on the preferences of hidden potentials. As a good example, LinkedIn started the Quiet Ambassadors program that targets introverted talents, who would not normally bait for traditionally extraverted leadership requirements.

Finally, trawling is about digging more deeply and more broadly into employees’ work environments, asking people on different organizational levels to nominate potential talents. To me, this looks like a strategy of capturing informal leaders, who might be overlooked by management and its formal talent scouting procedures.

All in all, the aforementioned methods seem to suggest a more proactive approach to talent identification, implying that not every potential leader is going to ‘knock’ him/herself on the door of HR. Moreover, hunting, fishing and trawling methods seem to have the potential also in the more narrow field of expatriate recruitment and selection.

4 thoughts on “Leadership Talent: How to Spot It if It Is Hidden?

  1. I like the article. It sounds like common sense, but I’ve found that the people who received the most praise from their coworkers were often the best place to start my search. They may not always be the top performers, but they’re typically the go-to people when you need something done.

  2. Nice article, thanks Sebastian.

    The shift from hiring to development…the old buy, build or borrow question…and if you cant buy, you build…The increasing flexible workforce offers for some roles another solution, the borrow option.

  3. Nice blog i want to be a leader as Rotaractor i develop myself but i have a question. Are we accurately assessing our leadership needs-developing the right quantity of leaders with the right mix of capabilities, at the right time, against the needed opportunities?

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