Who's your next superstar employee? It's not always easy to pick out future leaders early in their careers, but with practice, you can hone your talent spotting abilities, says Roberta Chinsky Matuson, author of Talent Magnetism: How to Build a Workplace That Attracts and Keeps the Best. The advantages of talent spotting at the entry level is enormous for middle market companies: if you can identify, promote, and reward top talent, that means you're less likely to lose them to the competition. Here are Matuson's top tips for finding great leaders early in their careers.

  • Attitude is key. Most entry level employees are content to sit back and wait to be told what to do. Not the best ones, however. "These are the people who always go above and beyond the call of duty, without ever being asked," says Matuson. "They demonstrate day in and day out that they are perseverant. They are willing to take on whatever tasks are assigned to them, regardless of whether or not the task is above them or below them. And they fit in well with others who are employed in your organization."
  • Work backwards from success. What makes for a successful leader in your organization? You don't have to guess; you can simply look at the traits of the best current leaders and use that as a model. Says Matuson, "One should not solely rely on intuition when it comes to hiring or promoting any staff member. Look at the traits of the most successful people in your organization and ask yourself if this person possesses these traits. If the answer is yes, then hire them!"
  • Ask around. When someone's truly talented, word gets around. As a busy leader, you may not be exposed to entry level employees that often, so be sure to talk to customers and fellow staffers to see who is really making an impact. "The more feedback you have, the better your decision making will be [on hiring and promotions], provided that you are asking the right people for feedback," says Matuson. "For example, asking someone who works clear across the country what they think about an employee whom they've only interacted with one time is a meaningless exercise. Instead, ask those who frequently interact with this person."
  • Make your company a talent magnet. The best way to find talented entry level employees is to draw them to you by cultivating a reputation as a terrific place to work. "If you're going to capture the talent you need to fuel the growth of your company," says Matuson, "then you'll need to pull people towards you." That means thinking about the qualities that would most interest the employees you seek — perhaps the opportunity to work on cutting-edge projects or the flexibility to telecommute — and ensuring that your company leads the way.
  • Don't write people off too soon. Some entry level employees show their promise early — and they should be recognized and rewarded. But that doesn't mean that everyone else is destined for mediocrity. "Not everyone blooms at the same time," says Matuson. "Some people need more time than others to adjust to their new surroundings. Others might need more care and attention in the beginning stages of a project. But once they blossom, they help to fill in those barren spots that are part of the landscape of every organization." It's important to understand that leadership can take time to cultivate, so don't write the late bloomers off too soon.

Finding the best talent is a challenge for any middle market company. By following these steps to recognize high-potential entry level employees, you can develop a powerful competitive advantage.

Dorie Clark is a NCMM contributor, marketing strategist, and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press), subscribe to her e-newsletter, and follow her on Twitter.