I know.  You thought you were supposed to pick the best and the brightest. Once upon a time so did I.  And then I learned a very important lesson:  The most talented person is not always the best person, and some people really are too smart for their own good.

Quite simply, talent is overrated.  Over the last 40-plus years, I have met and worked with more talented underachievers and nonperformers than you can imagine. When I find myself working with one of them, I offer them a couple of quotes.  One is from Charlie Brown (Peanuts) who advises Linus, “There is no heavier burden than a great potential.”  The other is from that famous author “Anonymous” who tells us that “The easier it is to be good, the more difficult it is to be great.”

So, if Talent alone isn’t enough to guarantee a successful successor, what other characteristics should you look for in your candidate of choice?  Here are a few that make a difference.

  • Persistence and Determination.  A while back, Dr. Benjamin Bloom studied high performers in several occupations. He believed he would find that the highest achievers were those who had the most talent; and he acknowledged that bias in in his report. Yet in his study he concluded that those with a high level of persistence and determination to produce results in their chosen profession performed the best, regardless of their level of talent.   

  • Outcome Focus. This characteristic can apply equally to success in building rapport and interpersonal relationships as well as producing the results necessary to keep the business competitive in the market.  The more ambiguous the outcome, the more likely the chosen successor will be to generate a low level of performance. Ambiguity is usually a learned, self-imposed limitation. Since people seldom exceed their self-imposed limitations, people who have a tendency to set ambiguous goals are probably going to have a record of spotty and inconsistent results. 

  • Average Intelligence.  A friend and client in the academic world once told me something that continues to stick with me.  He said, “Your A students build your reputation. Your B students attract employers to your campus.  Your C students are the ones you name your buildings after.”  And, of course, you name your buildings for those who make the largest contributions to the building campaign. When you’re looking at the succession pool, look for people who have proven that they can master a body of knowledge and apply that knowledge to real world situations and produce results.

Succession is all about choices and decisions. Surprisingly, you may be best off choosing a successor who has average intelligence and talent but can focus on outcomes and has the persistence and determination to see tasks through to the finish. That means there’s hope for all of us!

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