Identifying high potential within a workforce is critical if today's business leaders are to exploit fully its own human capital. Richard A MacKinnon explores how organisations can best identify, develop, deploy and retain the leaders of tomorrow.
Leaders are human too. Recent events, in politics and the world of finance, have shone a light on the role of organisational leaders and highlighted this fact all too clearly. The public at large have learnt more about how decisions at the top are made and many are not happy with what they have seen.
Failed financial organisations and ministerial embarrassments are obviously extreme examples, but nonetheless, leadership decision-making has resulted in business failures, mass redundancies and a wider impact on the UK economy.
The irony is that, in many cases, the processes for selecting a graduate entrant are far more stringent than those used in the appointment of business leaders – the latter sometimes being made after a single interview.
A recent Talent Q survey of HR directors highlighted some findings which we believe sit at the root of leadership issues in the UK, including:
- Just 44% of respondents believed their talent management processes were clearly aligned with the business's objectives
- Only 28% reported that their organisation takes an integrated approach to talent management (i.e., linking recruitment to development and ultimately to succession planning)
- Finally, just 12% believe that their talent management processes are implemented 'very well'
Perhaps some of the 'gloss' has come off how we view leaders – what are we to do to ensure the next crop of leaders do not make the same mistakes? Talent Q believes that in order to achieve the best results, there are three stages to leadership development; identify, develop and deploy, all of which are underpinned by a need to retain the brightest stars.
Identifying your leaders
Quality candidates for leadership positions need to be identified as early as possible, be developed in a coordinated way and deployed in the right positions. Although frequently loath to participate, candidates for leadership positions can benefit from the insights provided by psychometric assessments. The benefits are numerous, including:
- An objective assessment of ability, in terms of numerical, verbal and logical reasoning. Such tests are still the best predictors of success that exist
- Raising awareness of the importance of personality and working styles – a reflective activity that may be more significant for some than others. Awareness of how others think is a key developmental stage that some adults seemingly bypass, leading to frustration and misunderstandings in their interactions with colleagues
- 360 degree feedback can illustrate how colleagues feel about working with these individuals, which when combined with objective performance data, provide a clearer view of the potential an individual has to succeed within an organisation
Employees with leadership potential need to be identified at as early a stage as possible. This use of objective assessment is more meritocratic than the old fashioned 'tap on the shoulder', which favours those lucky enough to have had some level of exposure to senior decision-makers.
A caveat: psychometric instruments are merely tools. The involvement of an experienced professional is essential to ensure accuracy of interpretation and gain buy-in from the employee receiving feedback.
Developing your leaders
Leadership development programmes need to be just that: identifying where their approach to work, to managing relationships with other people, to how they conduct themselves, are potentially causing problems – and to set out development activities to address these. As such, a tailored approach is much more valuable than one resembling an assembly line.
Development needs to include a level of insight-building and skill development to equip leaders with new ways of behaving to suit multiple scenarios. Crucially, this development needs to be aligned with the espoused values and strategic goals of the organisation.
While it is appropriate to highlight a candidate's strengths as part of a development programme, you are doing them no favours by allowing them to rely on these strengths to see them through all potential scenarios. This is most likely to occur when they are meeting their 'core' targets (e.g., sales, successful management of change) and therefore it is tempting to turn a blind eye to other development needs (e.g., bullying behaviour).
This reliance on strengths can lead to career derailment if they are not refocused or managed as the manager progresses up the career ladder. Put simply, a strength in one situation (e.g., risk-taking behaviour in ambiguous situations) can be a potential derailer in a more senior position, where a more considered approach may be called for.
Personality theory shows us that certain combinations of strengths are right for certain organisations at certain times e.g., while going through significant change, during start-up, consolidation etc. Similarly, different roles at different levels in the organisation will place different demands on the job holders. Psychometric assessment, combined with thorough job analysis, can facilitate this person/role fit when used appropriately.
Placing the right person in the right role is a major step towards success – increasing their levels of engagement, reducing the chance of them leaving and increasing the contribution they make to the organisation. Skill deployment should be a significant responsibility for talent managers and should form a key part of all appointments made within an organisation. The insight-raising activities within a development programme can help employees identify their own next steps and ensure that progression is based on dialogue rather than diktat.
It can be galling to invest significant time and money in the development of a 'shining star' within your organisation, only to see them leave for a competitor. Development should be viewed as an ongoing activity, a process as opposed to an event, and should include regular evaluation of the next step a leader can take within the organisation.
To avoid this, talent managers should ask:
- Are we deploying these people in roles where they have the best chance of utilising their skills and abilities to mutual benefit? That is, high levels of individual engagement and commensurate levels of productivity
- Are they still receiving actionable developmental feedback from peers, subordinates and managers (e.g., through 360 degree feedback or similar) to allow them to re-calibrate their behaviour?
- Are they regularly being pushed/pulled from their comfort zone to ensure they are still challenged?
- Do we know enough about their career aims and ambitions to ensure we can indicate to them that there is a long-term future for them at the organisation?
It should be clear from the above that leaders do not simply appear on the doorsteps of organisations. In order to identify, develop and deploy candidates with leadership potential, a joined-up approach to talent management is a necessity, not a luxury. Finally, the leaders of tomorrow will have to convince organisational stakeholders and the public at large that they have learned lessons from the mistakes of their predecessors.
Richard A. MacKinnon is a senior consultant at Talent Q UK Ltd. He is also a chartered occupational psychologist with over 10 years' experience of applying psychological theory and practice in the workplace, in the UK and Europe.