Leadership successions can shape the success of a business for decades.

A company’s next leader may already be on the company’s leadership team, in which case it may seem that the leader has all the right attributes. But being on the leadership team is vastly different than being the leader of the team. As Abraham Lincoln said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Selecting a new leader from outside the company requires more work than tapping an in-house candidate, and can involve more risk and opportunity. Risk because there’s no certainty that an external candidate will be a good fit; opportunity because a fresh perspective can open up new thinking and new markets. Enlisting the assistance of an executive recruiter can streamline the process and keep staff focused on selecting among good candidates, rather than simply finding good candidates.

Regardless of where high-potential candidates emerge, they should possess the following traits:

  • Leadership potential: Is the individual respected in the company, industry, and business community? This should be easy to gauge for an internal candidate. But like any good assessment, it requires legwork—talking with your staff, your workforce, your customers and your peers in the industry. Is the candidate seen as a leader?
  • Leadership skills: The next leader should be familiar with the company’s business, and expert knowledge is a huge bonus (what the company does, how it operates, key technologies, understanding of customers, etc.). Another bonus is having a deep understanding of technical specifics, such as computer-engineering skills in a high-tech company. But there are leadership “technical skills” as well: an ability to define, communicate, and motivate individuals toward a strategic vision, even one that seems beyond attainment.
  • Intangibles: Your next leader must be good fit for the company. That doesn’t mean mimicking the previous leader, but a successor must be comfortable with the leadership team and culture (a poor selection based on a cultural misfit can trigger an exodus of top talent). Intangibles also include a passion for the role, a willingness to learn as well as lead, and personal integrity.

In selecting high-potential candidates from within, which can boost employee morale, as others see paths for their own careers, you’re likely to find and confirm necessary traits (knowledge of the business and products, integrity), but find skill gaps that require further development. A talent management strategy can begin to shape an executive for the top job. Key objectives for the talent management process are to align high potential internal candidates with mentors/coaches, transfer knowledge required to lead the organization, and develop skills that will be tested by leadership trials (e.g., change management, alliance development, etc.).

Regardless of your age, health, or life ambitions, if you want your company to last after your departure, the time to start finding the next leader is today. After all, they have big shoes to fill.