How to Find Hidden Leaders in an Organization

Succession Planning
Knowledge Center


Chloe Xu
Director, Australia

How to Find Hidden Leaders in an Organization

Searching for the next generation of business leaders is a challenge for organizations. Development programs that rotate visible high fliers and recruit from the outside are often the main strategies to fill key roles in an organization.
At the same time hidden talents can remain unnoticed within the organizational ranks. Finding them can present great value in terms of human resource practices, because an organization that can tap the resource of these overlooked leaders will be more cost-efficient with its executive succession plan. Also it can diminish potential risks of hiring cultural misfits. On top of that, searching systematically for hidden talents can make talented individuals feel motivated and engaged with the organization.

  • Persistent challenges attribute to the large size of organizations, bias in the selection process, and the narrow top-down lens of executives.
  • The traditional ’harvesting’ practice of talent cultivation doesn’t help to unearth hidden talents as they, by their nature, are usually not on the standard advancement path.
So what should companies do to identify promising candidates for promotion who are not on the list of usual suspects? Lane & Larmaraud (2017) have put forwarded three proactive efforts – hunting, fishing, and trawling – to expand a company’s leadership capacity while bringing further benefits to hidden leaders:

  • Hunting. Managers can scan for promising individuals in their unit explicitly with the help of technology. After checking employees' educational and training background, career history, and leadership experience outside the organization through personnel databases, patterns often emerge.
  • Fishing. If hunting is about using new approaches proactively to find out hidden talents, fishing involves using “bait” that encourages them to identify themselves. Rewarding inspirational leadership, creative problem-solving skills, and/or cross-organizational collaboration, are all ways to root out hidden talents.
  • Trawling. This approach involves digging more deeply and more broadly into employees’ work environment, by using methods like crowdsourcing, employee surveys, social-network analysis, etc. Methods like these can allow organizations to draw an accurate portrait of the real social networks within and identify the influencers.
The above 3 efforts should be considered as supplementary to existing activities and can be used in combination with them or independently.

Source: Lane, K. & Larmaraud, A. (2017). Finding Hidden Leaders. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved 9 January 2017,


Gregory Johnson
Coach, United States

Hidden Leaders Within Organizations

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