How to Spot Employees with Leadership Potential

In such a competitive talent market, how can you identify, advance, and retain leaders that will stick around for the long term?


In early 2020, as companies around the world closed their doors, many employees were suddenly asked to open their home offices—forced to hunker down and serve clients in an entirely remote work environment.

Today, even as COVID-19 restrictions ease in many parts of the country—and economic growth continues to project upward—not all employees are coming back. In fact, 1 in 4 are looking for new jobs. This is an increasing concern among CEOs, many of who cite developing their workforce and refining recruiting strategies as key priorities.

In a competitive talent market like this, what should you do? And how can you identify, advance, and retain leaders that will stick around for the long term?

What Makes a Great Leader?

In my role as managing director of SAP’s Midwest Market Unit, I regularly meet with CEOs and CIOs to help them address their greatest business challenges and accomplish their IT transformation goals. Being successful in these efforts requires a team of customer advocates who are as crazy about driving positive customer experiences as I am. Luckily, I have that.

And when looking across our organization, I love to hone in on future leaders who can take SAP where it needs to go. Three characteristics in particular always stand out. Leaders:

  1. Operate as the CEO of their own business
  2. Engender trust and empathy
  3. Function as a multiplier

First, as sales leaders, we’re required to wear many hats—from subject matter expert to strategic advisor to chief negotiator. Operating as the “CEO of your own business” requires intimate knowledge of your customer, industry and product; the ability to take swift and decisive action; clear, concise, and constant communication; and the savvy to operate in highly matrixed environments. You have to ensure that deadlines are met, budgets are safeguarded and, above all else, customer satisfaction is achieved.

Second, great leaders engender trust and empathy. Most sales leaders were once account executives themselves. What I see in rising leaders is an ability to put themselves in the account executive’s shoes without overreaching and taking control of the project. Delegating work to your team and trusting them to execute can be challenging, but it’s also one of the most rewarding aspects of leadership. Reminding the team that you’ve been in their role and that you understand the frustrations they’re experiencing can go a long way. This type of leadership also presents opportunities to provide real-time coaching and instantaneous feedback — both of which will, in turn, foster future leaders.

Finally, those with leadership potential act as a multiplier. Unlike “diminishers,” who underutilize their people and disregard new ideas, multipliers tap into the collective creative spirit of their team and empower individuals to think outside the box. Multipliers build a culture of innovation by encouraging people to make their own decisions. They guide conversations, rather than lead them, and ask thoughtful questions. By being intellectually curious and taking an interest in the lives of those on their teams, multipliers get the most out of their people and help direct them toward meaningful work.

More Than Just “Good on Paper”

Anyone who has tried to a fill leadership role knows it’s more complicated than simply finding someone with the right skill set and technical background. An individual may look great on paper, but those prerequisites, while important, don’t always translate into leadership potential. In reality, it’s the intangible qualities—drive, passion, presence and the like—that separate good leaders from great ones. So, today, with so much movement in the marketplace, it is vital for companies to ramp up their efforts to foster talent, look for leaders from within and develop strategies to help top performers grow.

That’s how you’ll build a new generation of leaders.

As SAP’s managing director of the Midwest region, Steve Baird is responsible for leading the market unit’s overall strategy, business operations, and customer and partner engagements. He is deeply committed to driving customer success, especially through cloud transformation, and supporting initiatives that create opportunity for all members of the organization to thrive. For Steve, this starts with embracing diversity of experiences and background, and encouraging continuous learning.