Headlines, such as "The Global Economic Crisis," "Inside the Financial Meltdown," "Housing Market Heads for Bottom," and "No End in Sight for Layoffs," have dominated the news and our psyche lately. For many organizations, survival strategies and tactics are the order of the day.
It would be easy, and perhaps natural, to neglect the long-term challenge of identifying and developing our best leadership talent, but it might be extremely dangerous to do so. The best people want to know that in times of crisis, their organization isn't going to abandon them.
Before the "crisis" mentality set in, most organizations were acutely aware of the growing shortage of leadership talent and the constraints it was placing on their ability to achieve their strategic objectives.
In response to the impending shortage, the most progressive organizations developed comprehensive talent management processes. But what did they know about what the best line leaders actually do on a day-to-day basis when they manage talent?
We decided to find out, so we examined what worked in the real world of the line manager. We tapped into the experience and wisdom of line leaders to find out what they actually do to identify leadership potential, to develop that talent, and to spot and prevent trouble along the way.
We asked HR executives to provide access to the line leaders in their companies who were the best at managing high-potential talent. We interviewed 47 of these managers from 30 Global 1000 organizations to discover their secrets on the key issues that they wrestle with when they attempt to harvest tomorrow's leaders.
Identifying high-potential leadership talent
We asked study participants to address the factors they consider to identify high-potential leadership talent. The following factors rated the highest.
1| Strong track record of performance, proven results, and success in past or current roles. Executives said they look at how successfully candidates perform their various job duties individually and compared to their peers. For instance, one executive said she looks for successful people in their current roles; another looks at job performance; and a third stressed standing out above the rest. One executive asks, "What kind of results are they getting? Did they go beyond what was initially laid out, and did they complete the project?"
2| Strong interpersonal skills - understanding the people-side of business. Interpersonal skills were described as softer skills and included the ability to interact with diverse individuals; to recognize how actions will affect themselves, others, and the business; to understand the people-side of the business; and to express empathy. When describing individuals who have strong interpersonal skills, one executive says he looks for people who are not all about themselves. One executive asks himself: "How do they achieve results? How do they work with people to get the work done?"
3| Strong communication skills, including excellent verbal and written communication. Excellent verbal and written communication and clear, concise communication at all levels were emphasized repeatedly as key predictors of future success. One executive identified high potentials by their ability to give presentations and how well they communicate and handle conflict. For many, the ability to communicate with their team was critical.
4| Drive, initiative, or an ambition to increase level of responsibility or readily accept new challenges. High potentials were described as hungry individuals who are self-driven, and not expecting the company to take them in any certain direction. Always thinking of a better mousetrap, these individuals are spotted by their initiative, persistence, and drive - their work ethic. One executive searches for individuals who are always unsatisfied with the status quo - looking to change what needs changing. One of the role-model leaders asks himself, "Does the individual have an interest and desire to learn more and to take on more responsibilities?"
5| An ability to create and articulate company vision and strategy, set direction, execute objectives, and understand the total business. Not only was it important to understand the company vision and strategy, but it is also important to look for individuals who are vision-setters, meaning they have a vision, share the vision, execute it, and get others to buy into it. In other words, they cast a vision for people to follow. One of the executives mentioned that high potentials should have no fear of personalizing the strategy and vision or of seeking input from subordinates because that is often what it takes to understand the dynamic(s) across the organization, and to have a clear point of view in understanding the [total] business and the context it is in.
Identifying high-potential leaders is just the beginning of the battle. Once identified, what do best-practice leaders do to develop high potentials?
Developing leadership talent
We asked our study participants three questions:
- What do they do to develop
- What do they do to accelerate development?
- What development activities have the most impact on individual growth and on the business?
Their responses shared significant themes:
1| Exposure (to peers, executives, board members, decision makers, different levels of the organization, or the global business). Exposure benefits high potentials because, as one executive explains, "[It] gives them the opportunity for trial and error, [so that they can] learn on the job." Executives specified that high potentials need exposure to senior executives, uncomfortable experiences, customers, external resources, internal resources and assignments, different levels of the organization, and risk to grow and develop successfully into leadership positions. And, finally, role-model leaders recommend follow up in the form of debriefs after the experience or exposure to understand what the high potential learned or gained from the experience and how any lessons might be applied to future challenges.
2| Increased responsibilities. Both cross-functional and vertical responsibility increases were seen as important to growth and development. Executives said they were likely to throw high-potentials into the frying pan to learn and give them the opportunity to shine in a variety of situations. Additional reasons to give them more responsibilities were to increase their stress tolerance, their communications skills, and their team orientation and influence.
3| Special assignments/projects (including stretch assignments). Special assignments develop transferable skills across the businessand the ability to learn on the fly. According to one executive: "We put them in a position to actually 'do' versus read or attend a classroom session' to push them out of their comfort zone." Another went so far as to say that it is critical that, for one year or more, the high potential demonstrate skills that she wouldn't normally use in her current job to prepare for the executive level."
One executive said, "We give project leadership roles in organization readiness, change, management, and financial analysis." Another added, "We send them someplace that is a mess and have them clean it up [and we] give them assignments to stretch them to the limit."
4| Job rotation. Role-model leaders felt that rotation helps high potentials learn key positions in the organization so that they can gain a better understanding of how the [total] business works. They saw global relocation to the same job or a different job, swapping positions, rotation in the corporate office, and moving functions (for instance from finance to general manager or operations, or marketing to operations) as most beneficial.
One executive defined the benefits of job rotation this way: "[It] improves the overall operations of the business, accelerates learning for all employees, and creates an environment in which high potentials share learning across the organization or business."
5| Coaching, feedback, mentoring, and development planning. Many executives noted that they make time for coaching, feedback, or mentoring and development planning with their high potentials. One executive put it this way: "Setting clear expectations or objectives and giving feedback eventually affect the business." Another executive brought up assessments by outside organizations as a development activity that has a positive impact on the individual's growth and the business.
Leaders interviewed use several different approaches. For instance, one executive said he informally mentors and provides lots of feedback to his high-potential talent. Many of the role-model leaders said that they connect their high-potentials to higher level leaders and senior mentors because as one executive put it, "You can't know everything!" She also said that high potentials need to have a champion and that the best top managers are good at bringing up new leadersat being their champion.
So, how do role-model leaders spot trouble and prevent derailment of these high-potentials in whom they have invested so much time and resources?
Spotting trouble: preventing derailment
Obviously, it does little good to excel at identifying and developing talent if we don't recognize the warning signs that a high-potential leader is in trouble and about to derail, and take action to prevent them from falling off track.
Our role-model executives say there are certain warning signs that indicate that a high potential may be headed for derailment. The following indicators for recognizing high risk of derailment were mentioned most often.
1| Lack of communication or engagement. One executive said she is acutely aware when high potentials stop calling or staying in touch, are not responding to requests, or their people say they aren't coming to them. If the high potential is managing others, lack of communication or engagement can be even more damaging, because his ability to influence others and to communicate the strategic goals and objectives of the organization wanes. Another executive said that competence is the problem when expectations and goals aren't met; it's a decreasing commitment, engagement, and passion that lead to derailment.
2| Personal issues and outside stressors. Role-model leaders look for a combination of things. One executive said that competing priorities, such as family, outside community, and personal changes or challenges, can cause a lack of focus that affects a high potential's performance negatively. Another executive interviewed went so far as to say that nine out of 10 times, personal issues are the cause of derailment.
3| Lack of follow-through. The executives interviewed felt that lack of follow-through is an extension of engagement because the high-potential may be bored or may have lost the ambition to grow. One executive said she looks specifically for a lack of enthusiasm and interest in activities as the high potential rushes projects, and has little or no patience.
4| Maturity issues. Maturity issues, such as poor self-control, lack of self-awareness, low or under-developed emotional intelligence, were mentioned frequently. An example of poor self control, according to one executive, is drinking at sales meetings and other such career limiting moves exhibited in a public setting. Another executive mentioned that a lack of discipline toward [their] development and low emotional intelligence or emotional maturity leads to using emotions rather than facts to make important business and personnel decisions.
We asked exceptional leaders what actions they take once they have noticed the early signs of possible derailment. The actions they take are straightforward and, when executed with care, can quickly put a derailed or derailing high potential back on track.
1| Increase feedback and communication. "You don't want to learn about the problem the day they resign," one executive explained. "Get close to them early on. If you are being proactive in their development, you won't be surprised." Another added, "I take a very direct but guiding leadership style that quickly addresses the issue as soon as it develops. I identify and detail the problem behavior and present fact-based, first-hand, specific examples and suggestions of behavior that would be more appropriate."
2| Develop an action plan. Another action frequently taken to prevent high-potential derailment was to develop a plan of action by working with the high-potential one-on-one to re-establish expectations, performance goals, and measurable outcomes. One leader said, "I take them through the ABCs, make a link between their behavior and results, and I am firm about expectations. I then put a specific plan of action into place with management controls, and we work together so that they are fulfilled in their position."
3| Provide coaching. Executives interviewed said that not only do they coach their high potentials, but they provide opportunities for them to be coached or mentored by peers or other executives. [They] provide an opportunity for them to use an external coach. It is helpful to involve a coach to help the individual talk about the underlying issues, and coaches may be able to point out alternative behaviors and solutions.
4| Provide new opportunities or challenges. It is possible that the individual's performance is poor because he is in an area in which he cannot excel - perhaps the proper support is not in place or perhaps the high potential has burnt out on the position. In such instances, one executive said, "If the individual has a strong history or track record with us, we will try to find a suitable spot for him." Others said they move people around and "find new opportunities and challenges for them.
Many organizations suffer from a lack of high-potential talent in their pipelines, and perhaps from a lack of line leaders with the know-how and experience to successfully identify, develop, and retain talent. We hope these lessons from the best-of-the-best provide helpful insights and practical guidelines for today's leaders who are on the firing line developing leadership talent.
They are also a great reality check for every human resource organization. Are your talent management policies, strategies, systems, and programs in tune with what actually works for role-model leaders? If not, it should be easy to identify areas for possible changes. Finally, this refreshing approach might encourage readers to consider conducting similar studies in their own organizations. Even in these difficult economic times or perhaps because of these difficult times. t+d