Today’s topic

How to assess leadership potential

But the figures around promotions make for uncomfortable reading. 

Women and promotions

The UK’s Office of National Statistics have found that people who work from home are 50% less likely to receive a promotion. That's' right - 50%.

Even when the ONS controlled for age, job role, level of responsibility and even for gender, people who work predominantly from home are 50% less likely to receive a promotion. When people returned to full time office work, their likelihood of receiving a promotion returned to the mean. 

So out of sight, out of mind is a thing in career development. As we rarely get to say here at Alva: correlation is, in this case, causation. 

With women comprising 42% of the American working population requesting WFH and hybrid working, there is a very real potential for women to get left behind. And let’s face it, women were already running uphill compared to their male colleagues. Women are both seen as riskier promotions, and typically receive lower potential ratings than their male counterparts (even when their performance levels are higher). We want the benefits of widening our talent pools to reap the benefit of talent that might live in different cities overseas; we might need to continue our decreased running costs.

But why are women getting left behind, and how can we understand how to better assess readiness for promotion?

The effects of promotion on leaders

So we have established that it is harder for women to get a promotion, but what happens if they get one? Dr. Daniella Lup from the University of Middlesex researched the effect of promotion - internal and external - on female employees. Using data from the British Household Panel Survey, she could look at data from 1998-2008, comprising 13,034 people (52,255 observations), with 6,069 male participants and 6,965 female.

Lup found that, although women have higher levels of job satisfaction than men, when women are promoted they show less satisfaction than men, and that, two years after promotion, women have significantly lower levels of job satisfaction than men. The effect is more pronounced for low-middle status promotions, than for more senior managerial work. This makes for uncomfortable reading. 

How leadership is usually assessed

Lup proposes that “women in managerial positions have more difficult organizational experiences than male managers”, consistent with the ‘glass ceiling’ hypothesis. It’s long been known that leadership and management are traditionally seen as masculine traits. Changing this is obviously of crucial importance, but also a massive challenge not just handled within one single organisation. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to try and do what we can.

A  first stepping stone to diversifying your workforce can be to check your language in job adverts - use behaviours and verbs (e.g., doing words such as “managing”, “leading”, “creating”) rather than nouns (“manage, “lead”, “create”) or adjectives (“manager, “leader”, “creator”). 


If we’re going to counter the oppositional behaviour that Lup found in her research, we need to go deeper into strategic changes that can reframe how we understand leadership. These wordings represent how many - most - of us still view leadership, and changing a couple of words without ‘doing the work’ will not create the new strategies for hiring and promotion that counter these cognitive biases that create and maintain ‘glass ceilings’. 

This is where we need the insights of evidence-based personality psychology to provide us with the evidence base to counter ‘gut feeling’ and ‘intuition’ based mis-steps.

How leadership should be assessed

It is quite obvious that we are missing out on valuable talent in today's faulty way of promoting employees. And the quality numbers for promotions are just as bleak. Approximately one third of all promotions fail. What conclusions can we draw based on this? We are assessing the wrong things when we evaluate who is suitable for that promotion.

“Soft skills” have been undervalued in the workplace. When looked at from the perspective of how to hire employees who have leadership potential, soft skills contain much more evidence about who has the potential to lead.

Indeed, what are seen as hard skills - knowing this or that CRM system, five years brand management or fluency in coding - are rather disposable skills. The organisations who thrived during the pandemic were those who assessed quickly what worked and what core parts of their value-propositions needed to change. What comprised success for these organisations wasn’t something static, such as ‘being a restaurant’; rather it was ‘we love people enjoying our amazing food’ - wherever those people happen to be.

Leadership, potential and success

The Big 5 personality model is a well-validated psychological theory that underpins an evidence-based recruitment process. When used alongside a logical ability test and a structured interview process, personality is a good predictor of future performance  -  and how to organise people’s promotions.

One of the skills most linked to leadership success is conscientiousness; traditionally seen as a soft skill, it’s one of the most significant traits to consider in HR. A meta-analysis by academics Wilmot & Ones looked at data that represented more than 1.1 million participants over 2,500 different research projects.

Around 100 years of research by academics into what constitutes a helpful employee, they found that “conscientiousness is the most potent noncognitive construct for occupational performance”. Or - aside from General Mental Ability - being conscientious is one of the strongest predictors for who is going to succeed at work. 

And to a large extent, that makes a lot of sense. Being more structured, organized and ambitious is helpful in pretty much every job, right?

Of the remaining four traits, Agreeableness is one of the most important factors for success in predicting leadership success. Think about it: leaders need to gain ‘buy-in’ from their teams, even when there’s bad news, or it’s a rainy Friday afternoon and everyone just wants to go home. If you know that someone has a level of Agreeableness that is linked with leadership potential, you have someone who will enjoy the challenges of leading and grow into that role - regardless of how many years of experience they have. 

Hybrid work, women and career development.

It’s clear that there are very real risks that equality at work could continue to deteriorate for women. The gender pay gap is significant, and, as I wrote in November, the grim yearly point at which women work for free has passed us by.

Rethinking how we understand leadership potential is key if we are going to sustain women. In addition to wanting better deliverables for our organisations, surely we want to be employers who understand what leadership and talent truly are? If working through the covid pandemic has taught us anything, it’s surely shown us that results are not only delivered through being at the office, 9-5, every day. They’re delivered by agile teams who can pivot, take on changes, and are conscientious about their work. 

So let’s rethink how we understand leadership and potential; let’s stop working with outdated ideas of leadership and understand what truly underpins success: the mindsets of the people who come to work, everyday.

Let’s put people where they will flourish.


“Promotions are a vital part of the career advancement process in organizations.” DeSouza, 2002. Why? When we work, we hope that we’re using our skills and talents in the service of something bigger than ourselves, and we want to be really good at what we do!