How to Use Your Hiring Interview to Spot Potential Leadership Talent!  

How to Use Your Hiring Interview to Spot Potential Leadership Talent!  

by Jeanne Knutzen | June 4, 2018

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PACE LeadersInterview Questions to Help You Spot Leadership Potential!   

Whether you are a small company where you need leaders in every role, a fast track company where a pipeline of “leadership ready” employees is key to executing your growth plan,  or a company who prides itself on developing its leaders “from within”,  the ability to identify candidates with “leadership talent” (not just leadership skill or experience) is a component of your hiring strategy that can make a big difference in how your company performs.  Hiring employees already skilled and experienced in leadership is not only expensive but doesn’t always result in the kind of leaders who are effective in your unique work environment.  Hiring for leadership potential is often the better solution!

The good news is that some leadership and most management skills that you need in your specific work environment are teachable.  The bad news is that the personal traits that make it easy for some people to lead (and others to follow), often come baked in and represent underlying “talents” not always easy to detect in hiring processes focused only on here and now skills and experience.       

The need to uncover leadership talent, not just skills and experience, has created a whole industry of testing and assessment services designed to help companies identify and develop leadership talent – mostly after the employee has already been hired.   These services are both expensive or time consuming and we’re not sure produce any better results than a handful of carefully constructed interview questions that can be incorporated in your hiring process.

Here are five questions that PACE recruiters ask when our clients are focused on identifying their future leaders!    

 These questions were developed based on a few leadership qualities that most frequently came up when we asked employers to describe what “leadership behavior” looked  like in their work environment – i.e. their version of a “rock star”.     Again these are not questions that assess the candidate’s skills or experience as a leader but rather to identify candidates who have a history of behaving in ways that suggest an underlying talent for leadership.   

Leadership Motivation – A Track Record of “Going Above and Beyond” 

One of the things we’ve noticed after interviewing 1000’s of candidates each year for a variety of leadership roles, is that people with a talent for leadership often come with a track record of ‘falling into some type of leadership role”.  These are roles they didn’t seek in either their professional or personal lives, but just started doing because they saw the need and had the desire to “make a difference.”    Usually there is no formal job title or even a formal work assignment to ‘what they do” – they just end up doing leadership stuff “because they can.”

Sooooo…one of our leadership talent questions attempts to find out when, why and how someone gets involved in a leadership role, even when that role was not clearly defined or requested.

“Describe a situation where you were working in a team environment and ended up playing a more important or influential role on the team than you originally signed up for.”       

Follow up Questions:

  • How did you first uncover that the team needed your help to be successful?
  • Describe how you came to put yourself into the leadership? 
  • Did you enjoy this role? If so, why?
  • Did you run into anyone on the team who resisted your efforts to step into this role?
  • How often do you find yourself in this type of informal leadership position?

Look For…

  • Patterns of assuming the role of leadership even without formal appointment
  • If and why they enjoy doing “leadership work” – where they recognize the need for them to provide direction to a team without being specifically asked?   
  • The specific personal qualities/abilities that they believe often puts them in a place to go above the norm.   (ex. an ability to organize people and events, an ability to motivate or inspire others, a unique approach to solving problems, etc.)   

Leadership Style – Behaviors that Portray Confidence and Influence Others 

People with leadership talent usually behave in ways that organically earns them the attention and respect of others they are working with.  Here’s how we find out if the candidate is aware of their talent for garnering “influence” and how they have used that talent in the past:

“When you become part of a new group how do you go about earning the group’s respect and admiration and ultimately establish yourself as someone who can influence others?”     

Follow Up Questions…

  • Provide an example.
  • What if that technique doesn’t work? What else might you try?
  • Do you consider yourself an idea person – someone who always comes up with new ideas for how the team can improve how it works together?  Give me an example of how you do that?

Look For…

  • Comfort and confidence in their ability to lead from a strength that for them, has typically put them into a role of leadership.
  • Patterns of behavior that you know would be respected and valued by the team they would be joining.
  • Their ability to generate ideas that might help your team to perform better.

Leadership Relationships – Behaviors that Demonstrate Balance and Consistency

While most experienced leaders have learned to deal with the difference between their role as leader and their role as friend or confidant to the people they are leading,  less experienced leaders without the natural instincts of a leader, often lack that awareness.  People with leadership talent tend to understand the inherent differences between being viewed as a leader and not just a participant.  They tend to value consistency in all their personal relationships and will adjust the expectations others might have of them as needed to maintain that consistency.

To assess a candidate’s experience or ability to navigate the complications of personal and professional relationships, how about asking…

“Describe a situation where you had a personal relationship with someone who you knew was not always behaving in the best interests of the team.  What kind of conflicts did that create for you?  How did you resolve those conflicts?     

Follow Up Questions…

  • How were you able to retain your personal relationship with your friend without compromising your role of influence on the team?
  • How did you address your conflict with your friend?

Look For…

  • Experience with these types of “draw the line” situations and the learnings the candidate obtained from handling each obstacle.

Leadership Energy – Examples of Mental and Physical Stamina

Leadership talent is typically underwritten by a considerable amount of personal stamina – the special energy it takes to weather the ups and downs of the leadership role, both physically and mentally.  Leaders find ways to refuel themselves when they find their tank empty.

Knowing something about how an employee is likely to show up when the going gets tough can be an important component of any hiring process but especially one that is focused on identifying leadership talent. Here is a question in our arsenal that you might find helpful.

“Describe a situation where there were so many things going wrong that you had to work hard to keep yourself positively motivated.    What did you do to keep yourself positive and help others do the same?”    

Follow Up Questions…

  • Do you think others knew the situation was personally challenging for you?
  • What were you doing personally to make sure you had the energy required for the situation?
  • What ideas were you able to bring forward to the group to help yourself and the group perform better?

Look for…

  • How they have dealt with difficult challenges in the past? How honest do you think they were when describing those personal challenges?
  • Their awareness of the impact they have on others – their responsibility to be a role model
  • The quality of ideas they came up with to help the team find a solution.

 Leadership Courage – Experience with Change, Uncertainties, Unknowns

An important trait that we believe is an earmark of leadership talent gets revealed in situations where there are a lot of unknowns or extended periods of change.   How someone solves problems, or makes decisions in these types of environments, even in the face of unknowns, tells us a lot about their leadership talent.

Here’s the question we ask to assess a candidate‘s capacity to handle the unknowns:

 “Describe a situation where your company or team was going thru a lot of change, uncertainties and unknowns.  What did you do to get yourself thru that situation?  How did you help your team get thru the ups and downs of change?”

Follow Up Questions…

  • How did you go about getting the information you needed in order to know how to proceed?
  • How did you handle your personal concerns with the “unknowns”?
  • What ideas did you come up with that tended to help you or your team perform better?

Look For…

  • A willingness to ask others for help.
  • An ability to be “self managed” – to take initiative, to be resourceful
  • A comfort level with “not knowing” and how they were able to help others with them “not knowing” .
  • Techniques the candidate used to learn what they needed to know…their learning agility.


Notice that all of these interview questions are behaviorally based, meaning they require the candidate to give real life examples of where they have demonstrated their talent for leadership.   This will help you separate candidates with a behavioral background demonstrating leadership behaviors, different from candidates who only talk the talk or have an impressive  job title but without the talent the title implies.  While not all candidates with leadership talent will answer your interview questions in the same way,  if you stay disciplined about asking all candidates the same questions, it will become easier to spot the real leaders from the leader wannabes.    

Finding yourself short on the leadership talent you need to grow your business?   

Here’s How We Can Help…. 

  • We can help you profile the kind of leadership talent most likely to fit into your organization and help you create a  hiring process focused on identifying that talent.
  • Our Recruiters are active in the candidate marketplace 24/7, and will spread the word about who you are and who you want to hire, even when you’re not hiring.   Once we’ve profiled the type of talents you value and your plans to reward that talent as you grow your business, we’ll make sure that when someone comes along that matches your profile, you’re alerted.  We’ll also make sure those rock star candidates have you on their radar as an employer of choice.
  • We’ll make sure that every PACE candidate you interview is a great fit not just for the job you’re trying to fill, but for your long term organizational goals.


This blog was written by Jeanne Knutzen, founder and President of the PACE Staffing Network, an award winning staffing company headquartered in Bellevue Washington. PACE has been providing recruiting and staffing services for companies located throughout the Puget Sound for over 45 years and is ranked in the top 2% of staffing and recruiting organizations nation wide.  PACE recruits for temporary, contract, temp to hire and direct hire roles plus manages a network of service suppliers to provide a one stop recruiting services solution.  Contact us by completing the form below!

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