The Most Important Question to Ask Candidates for Leadership Roles

When hiring for leadership roles, most companies emphasize skills like whether the leader can hit financial and operational targets, grow revenue, manage costs, etc. But one of the most important characteristics that should factor into hiring decisions for leaders is to what extent they extract and inspire the best possible performance from their employees.

One of the traits people most want from today’s leaders is someone who can help them grow and develop. For example, more than 1 million people have taken the test “What’s Your Leadership Style?” And the results are crystal clear — the leader most people want to work for has an Idealist leadership style.

Idealists want to learn and grow, and they want everyone else to do the same. They’re open-minded and prize creativity from themselves and others. In simple terms, Idealists believe in the positive potential of everyone around them.

But here’s the problem: While more than half of people say the Idealist is their ideal leader, only about 9% of leaders actually employ that growth-focused leadership style.

You can see this deficiency in developing employees’ potential in numerous studies. For example, in the research on “The Leadership Skills Gap,” we learned that only 26% of leaders have true proficiency at developing middle performers into high performers. And in “The State of Leadership Development” study, only 20% of employees say their leader always takes an active role in helping them to grow and develop their full potential.

The question, of course, becomes how interviewers can assess whether a leadership candidate has the skills and mindset necessary to develop their people and inspire the best possible performance from them.

To that end, here’s a simple interview question that quickly reveals whether your leadership candidates have that ability: Could you tell me about a time that one of your employees wasn’t reaching their full potential?

Notice that this question does not ask leaders to describe a success story about when they magnificently developed their employees. Virtually every candidate for a leadership job will have a canned response with a few curated success stories. And when we ask a positively-framed question, we’re simply asking candidates to give us their canned pitch.

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Instead, we need to ask candidates about a time when one of their employees was not reaching their full potential because we need to subject that candidate to two tests. First, we need to assess whether the leader took any action to develop the person. It’s not uncommon for leadership candidates to answer the question with a response like, “Well, you know, not everyone wants to grow and develop; some people just want a paycheck, and that’s it.”  

Second, if the leader actually did take some actions to unlock that employee’s full potential, we need to hear specifics about what those actions were and to what extent they were effective.  

When a leadership candidate answers this question with warmed-over clichés like, “I always focus on helping my employees grow,” or, “I believe everyone has the potential to be great,” it’s safe to assume we’re dealing with someone who didn’t take a lot of specific actions.

Of course, you want to hire leaders who have all the requisite skills. But given the importance of employee growth and development, especially in an era where we need every possible advantage to retain great people, you really want to ensure that you’re hiring leaders who can unlock employees’ potential.  

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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