People know a great leader when they see one. Yet, if you ask 10 people to describe the characteristics of a strong leader, you’ll probably get 10 different answers. True leadership is an evolutionary process in which successes and occasional failures have helped develop leadership abilities in equal measure. No two leaders have the exact same background and experiences, but, quite often, great leaders are made up of the same qualities.
How to Identify Leadership
Leadership qualities can be hard to identify in jobseekers, especially college grads entering into the job market for the first time upon graduation. Without years of work experience, examples of leadership are often not as obvious on an entry-level résumé.
How, then, would you know that a political science major, who was a performing cellist in college and whose only work experience is working as a restaurant server, is a gifted leader? Obviously, it’s more than just asking “Are you a leader?” The key is identifying the skills that true leaders possess.
We’ve had more than 20 years to observe and study college graduates on the job hunt, and based on thousands of interviews and monitoring their progress after hire, here are five attributes we believe most leaders have in abundance.
Leaders Solve Problems
Because they are high achievers who understand the value of a “well-oiled machine,” strong leaders look to find ways to improve systems, processes, and procedures. They are adept at analyzing problems, thinking critically, and offering solutions.
Leaders Have a Strong Sense of Initiative and Urgency
Time is money. Leaders understand how to prioritize work, utilize resources, and deploy teams/people to efficiently and effectively complete projects. They often have an innate ability to recognize and seize opportunities, capitalizing on quick action and decision-making.
Leaders Listen and Communicate Effectively
Leaders speak from a place of understanding, authority, and direction. First, they are active listeners. They seek to understand, asking questions, accumulating information, and gaining insight. Leaders are direct, thorough, and clear, leaving no room for misunderstandings or confusion on expectations. And perhaps most importantly, leaders are respectful and thoughtful in their communications.
Leaders Have Courage
Leaders know that you can easily lose ground, customers, market share, etc., if you aren’t always pushing to grow and progress. It’s about seizing opportunities and being able to foresee the outcomes of taking calculated risks. Yes, this comes from experience and having great business sense, but it’s also about making tough decisions, trying new things, and always learning from every situation.
Leaders Motivate People
This one’s big. Everyone’s different and is motivated by different things. Leaders get this. They know the universal truths: Set clear goals and expectations, create positive work environments, and foster teamwork and collaboration. But beyond that, great leaders know that whether it be professional development, leadership opportunities, competitions, or bonus pay, finding the right mix of motivators can drive productivity, reduce turnover, and increase employee engagement—all good things.
Consider each of these tenets when interviewing prospective hires. For the new grad with no professional work experience, look to real-life experiences; ask open-ended questions that allow the candidate to cite real-life examples in each area where he or she has exhibited leadership behavior.
Surprisingly, you might learn about how a candidate identified a problem with long wait times at the restaurant he or she worked at during college and created a solution that both decreased wait times and increased sales. Or, you might find out about the time a candidate rallied his or her basketball team to push through what looked to be a losing season to make it to their division playoffs through his or her ability to effectively motivate the team.
Leaders aren’t made in the classroom. Important innate skills are developed and honed through a series of life experiences unique to each individual. As a hiring manager, finding the diamonds in the rough is challenging but rewarding work. The trick is knowing how to mine them and then giving them an opportunity to shine.
Brian Weed is CEO of Avenica, the leading U.S. recruiting firm exclusively focused on placing recent college graduates into entry-level, career-track positions. Learn more about the process, or find the right entry-level talent for your team here.