Are You Picking the Right Kind of Leader?

Most executives are not happy with their organization’s succession management program, despite recognizing the importance of such activities. Those sentiments are taken from reports created by Stanford University and the Institute for Executive Development. If it sounds like something your organization is struggling with, you’re not alone.

In fact, you haven’t been alone for a long time. Back in 2002, an article in the Harvard Business Review made the case that succession management was ineffective in many companies and also proposed an approach to fix what was ailing them.

In the article, authors Melvin Sorcher and James Brant, noted that senior executives often make decisions about succession candidates based on unbalanced and inaccurate information. They tend to overvalue some attributes while undervaluing others.

Specifically, the authors identified these six areas where executives typically overvalue certain characteristics:

Being a Team Player – Those who manage by consensus are often looked on favorably because they keep the peace and make it easy on their superiors. They don’t often make the best leaders, though. A more desirable leadership characteristic is someone who is an independent thinker and more prone to taking risks.

Hands-on Coaching – Being too hands-on as a coach is another area, the authors say, where executives place too much value. Many excellent leaders, they assert, actually prefer to select strong people, delegate and allow them to learn from their own mistakes.

Operational Efficiency – People who are good implementers and problem solvers are often over valued as well. This is kind of the Peter Principle in action, where people are promoted to their level of incompetency. “Being able to solve a problem is one thing,” the authors write. “Knowing which problem to solve – and taking the initiative to solve it – is another.” Here they also flag the risk of not considering how results are achieved. A high achiever who gets results through manipulation will not make a good leader.

Dynamic Public Speaking – How many times have you heard that the ability to get in front of a big room full of people and wow them is a key leadership skill? Not so, according to the article. This skill can be coached and should never be the basis for dismissing a candidate. Much more important is the ability to connect and influence one-on-one.

Ambition – A lack of ambition can be a black mark against a candidate for a leadership role. If they don’t seem hungry, let’s give it to the person who is because they’ll give it their all, the logic goes. The problem is that ambition doesn’t have to be overt, and the presence of it doesn't compensate for inadequacies elsewhere. Modesty and humility are much more predictive of future leadership success than raw ambition.

Similarity and Familiarity – Many top executives fall into the trap of favoring those who are most similar to themselves. Differences in background, experience, culture or geography can cause promising candidates to be overlooked. Often the bias is not even conscious, but it guides decision-making from behind the scenes. At McQuaig, we call this the First Level of Assessment

To avoid making decisions based on these biases, the authors suggest an evaluation process that involves a group of participants composed of:

  • a candidate’s direct manager;
  • their manager’s manager; and
  • other executives who have worked closely with the candidate.

The group should have a “discussion leader” who uses a set of carefully crafted questions designed to predict how the candidate will perform in a position of greater responsibility. This predictive element is one of the biggest gaps in most succession management. “Typically, management reviews tend to focus on the performance of certain tasks, relying on a checklist of competencies, and fail to investigate the behavioral characteristics of an individual.”

This discussion leader must also root out biases and insist on concrete examples to support positive and negative assertions.

Often what happens in these groups is that one person’s impressions may spark similar memories in others who support it. For example, the authors cite an example of one manager reluctantly sharing some information with the group that got other participants telling similar stories, and what emerged was a pattern of manipulation for personal benefit on the part of the candidate.

Another example discussed a project manager who had strong analytical skills, but when pressed for specific examples, members of the group began to tell stories that painted a picture of a great, reactive fire fighter who was unable to see these potential fires in advance and proactively deal with them.

If participants can’t provide specific examples of how someone has, for example, ran an international division, the group might develop a plan that requires the candidate to demonstrate the skills and behaviors required to do so.

This approach has many similarities to our own approach to succession management. We support clients in using behavioral insights to:

  1. Identify future role requirements
  2. Assess their current talent pool
  3. Develop individual leadership development plans

The trick to good succession planning is providing senior leadership with the right information and sifting through the many subtleties of leadership and getting at the core of a candidate’s success and potential. Then you set yourself up to pick the right kind of leader.