The automotive industry has always been fiercely competitive. But in the digital era the scope of the competition has changed.

The epic battle defining the industry is not GM vs. Ford or Toyota, but GM, Ford, Toyota and the other OEMs vs. Google and other digital innovators in the race for the connected car.

The auto industry is in the middle of its biggest disruption since the advent of the assembly line. But industries do not transform themselves. They are transformed by people.

Leaders with the right vision, temperament and experience are all the scarcer because everyone from automakers to banks to movie studios looks for the same talent. Yet, finding the right people is only half the battle.

Too often an automaker will, after great effort, bring in a promising leader in automotive connectivity, either from another car company or from outside the industry, only to have him or her leave in a cloud of mutual frustration. This misstep inflicts significant opportunity cost and increases skepticism within the organization about the possibilities for real change. It’s exactly the wrong message to send.

When talent fallouts occur, it’s easy to blame the automaker for being too siloed, too bureaucratic, too mired in legacy thinking. But that response benefits no one.

Do automakers need to make radical alterations to how they think and work?  Of course, which is why they are fighting so hard to land the talent required to effect those changes.

But anyone walking into such a position also needs to have realistic expectations about the pace of change. More importantly, they must not only understand those limitations intellectually, but be comfortable working in the midst of an environment in radical transition, and for being responsible, despite all the difficulties, for bringing about change. The ability to thrive in uncertainty is an essential attribute for any automotive connectivity leader.

How can automakers identify who has this quality? The quality to focus on is a leader’s potential – a set of behaviors that demonstrates the ability to adapt to new environments.

Note that this is very different from the “high-potential” programs in place at most major corporations. Most such programs are really “high-performer” programs. They identify and fast-track those who are most likely to be successful leaders of tomorrow based on how well they have performed up until today.

That approach works when there is a certain level of continuity between the past and the future. But in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous automotive industry, such competency-based appraisals are insufficient.

Our experience over the last two decades working with companies in industries undergoing major disruption has helped us identify four key dimensions of leadership potential:

  • Curiosity. Seeks out new experiences, ideas, knowledge and self-improvement. Constantly refreshes on the intellectual, experiential and personal level. Proactively seeks feedback and changes behavior in response.
  • Insight. Can make sense of a vast range of information, often discovering new insights that can transform past views or set new directions.
  • Engagement. Resonates with others’ emotions and motivations, sharing a sense of purpose and caring. Self-aware and genuinely connects with the hearts and minds of others.
  • Determination. Remains resilient in the face of challenges and setbacks. Perseveres through self-discipline and channeling emotions. Looks for disconfirming evidence of conviction.

To be meaningful, assessing potential must be done rigorously. That includes in-depth interviews and professional references specifically designed to collect concrete examples that substantiate an assessment of the four dimensions of potential. Organizations cannot assume this information can be gathered after the fact from performance reviews and biographical information. Companies willing to invest in augmenting their assessment process to include potential will find that their chances of attracting and keeping the hard-to-find automotive connectivity leaders will improve dramatically.

Shauna Finnie McIntyre is a member of the Industrial Practice of Egon Zehnder, a global executive-search firm. Contributing to this column is colleague Gabriel Andrade who specializes in technology and communications.