You have an ambitious employee eager to be promoted to manager. He feels he’s ready and is good at his job, but is he ready to lead? Rebecca Knight provided the following suggestions in Harvard Business Review on how to determine whether an employee has the right skills and experience and how to measure his potential.

What the Experts Say

As a manager, you’re always on the lookout for the next generation of talent in your organization. But trying to figure out whether a particular direct report is management material is not always straightforward, says Anna Ranieri, executive coach and author of the forthcoming Connecting the Dots: Telling the Story to Advance Your Career. “It requires different skills to manage than to be an individual contributor,” she says. “And since you want your decision to promote to be the right one, you wonder, ‘How do I make a sure enough bet?’” The good news is that, “people can develop their capacity to lead,” says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and the coauthor of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. “What you’re looking for is behavioral evidence that this person has the potential and talents to manage.” If you’re successful in the evaluation stage, you’ll be in a better position to “anticipate the person’s weaknesses so you can help onboard him into a management role when the time comes.”

Here are some ways to go about it.

Gauge Interest

A good starting point, according to Ranieri, is to determine whether your ambitious direct report is, in fact, “interested in,” and, “geared toward management,” and not just “going through the motions, and thinking that she’s been at the organization a certain number of years so it’s time for a promotion.” The best way to find out is to ask her. “Say, ‘Do you want to be in management? What’s your view of what that means? And what makes you think you would be good for that kind of role?’” Of course, notes Hill, you must “pay attention to what the person has done, not just what she says.” Ask yourself, “Have I ever seen an instance where this candidate took on a leader-like role, not just a star performer role?” You should also try to figure out whether the person has “the right motivation to want to lead,” which Hill defines as the desire to “shape the context and coach others.”

Assess Experience

Hill then recommends finding out what other management experiences the person has had. After all, roles like captaining a college field hockey team or editing a school literary magazine provide valuable leadership experience. She also suggests asking, “How do you spend your time outside of work? Perhaps this person volunteers and recently ran a campaign for a nonprofit. That shows she likes to mobilize others and lead.” Having the experience is key, but you’re also looking for evidence of growth, says Ranieri. “It’s important to test the person on his people skills and self-knowledge,” she says. The goal is to identify, “how he inspires others to work hard and give it their best. Ask, ‘What made you believe you were successful in that role?’”

Test Organizational Know-How

Once you have a sense of the aspiring manager’s interest level and past experience, you need to get a handle on her “understanding of the organization — its culture, its needs, and where she thinks it’s going,” says Ranieri. “If you think her opinions are inaccurate [or disagree with her assessment], it’s appropriate to push back or at least continue the conversation,” she says. “Maybe you will learn something.” Raneiri suggests asking the candidate to provide examples of current managers who are successful and — without naming names — cite ways in which other executives could improve. Your goal is judge whether this candidate understands the role and find out how she would run this particular team. It’s also important to evaluate the candidate’s contextual intelligence or CQ, says Hill. “Can he see the big picture? Can he connect the dots? Can he think systemically?” CQ, according to Hill, is a critical component of leadership “given the complexity of management today. Without it, you have trouble prioritizing and thinking about what your group should be working on, not just what it could be working on.”

Seek Other Opinions

Even if the ultimate hiring decision is yours, Ranieri suggests you discuss the prospective manager’s potential with other colleagues and fellow team leaders. Your inquiry needn’t be stealth. Ranieri recommends asking the candidate for references by saying something like, “‘I would like to talk to other people who’ve seen you act in a managerial way.’ This gives the individual time to seek out colleagues and remind them of examples [that speak to] his management potential.” She recommends paying special attention to what the candidate’s close associates have to say. “Maybe the bosses are happy, but peers tell a different story,” she says. That’s valuable information.


It’s also important to observe your ambitious report in action, says Ranieri. Notice whether she is “a person who comes to staff meetings and has ideas not only about her tasks but also about other things going on in the organization.” In other words: does she have a vision for the company and “is she someone who wants to have a broader reach?” Think about your impressions of this person. Is she curious? Is she a learner? When she faced setbacks, did she exhibit resilience? Who does she go to for assistance? Is she a loner or does she have a network? If you don’t see evidence of the traits you’re looking for or you remain uncertain of her capabilities, Hill suggests providing “little experiences” that will prepare her for a leadership role.

Heed Red Flags

When evaluating management potential, there are certain negative characteristics to be on the lookout for, according to Hill. Beware of those who are not open to feedback. And think twice about candidates “who very rarely take into account other people’s points of view.”  Try to determine whether or not the person exhibits professional courage. “If he won’t stretch himself, to me that shows he is not ambitious enough,” she says. Also look out for those who are not generous. “A person who doesn’t work well with other people and who thinks he’s smarter than, or better than, others,” does not make for a good manager.”

You can read the full case study here.