A humane and very scientific art: Mind the knowledge gap

Robust scientific research on leadership and executive potential is vast, easy to access and has clear implications for real world application. Yet, it’s often disturbing to see the disconnect between evidence-based research and what really happens in organisations by those whose very purpose it is to assess and select leaders.

Leadership roles are crucial for navigating organisations through an increasingly daunting environment and for engaging and enabling their people to outperform the competition. According to Gallop, less than 13% of employees globally are engaged. Why does that matter? It’s bad for business.

But with all the evidence supporting air-tight selection methods, how can this be? The academic- practioner gap may answer this question. Executive assessment is a specialism which demands scientific rigour beyond administering bog-standard assessments. It also needs a human-centred and developmental approach wedded together via an engaging and transparent process (an artform).

Without a coherent approach selecting the right individuals can be a minefield.

Lack of appropriate assessment methods will result in unreliable data points from which to base your hiring, promoting or selection decision.

Failure to communicate the process openly will disengage the candidate and risk damaging your brand.

Finally, fail to provide successful and unsuccessful candidates with the right developmental feedback and the former may not achieve the very potential you’ve just outlined while the latter may view the brand less favourably.

These potential pitfalls mean the stakes for your organisation’s future are simply too high to gamble with.

Executive Assessment: a three-headed monster

The problem is three-fold. Firstly, what people consider to be potential is usually current performance or technical skills. Research suggests that performance is a poor predictor of potential, but that potential is a strong predictor of performance. However, while organisations confuse these terms, the results will lead to strong individual contributors being promoted regardless of what science tells us individuals require to become effective leaders.

Secondly, there’s a misconception that leadership outcomes are based on the situation and that anyone who tries hard enough can become a great leader. However, some people are far more likely to emerge as effective leaders and the guess work can be replaced using robust psychometric tools and assessment techniques.

Finally, there’s a limit to current assessment methods which were not designed to assess and compare whether a senior leader can grow and flourish in roles way outside of their current level and then continue to develop alongside the organisation.

Treating executives fairly as a pre-requisite is unquestionable but treating their assessment and selection in the same way as others is deeply flawed.

The problem’s worsened by the fact that executives at this level have enviable track records of delivering value in organisations, impressive educational achievements and cognitive abilities. Comparison and distinction at this level is paramount but this itself is draped in complexity.

These conundrums leave many organisations unaware of the risks associated with deploying standard assessments and with little informed guidance on where to begin in predicting who’s best to assume one of the most important roles in the organisation.

Assess with finesse, select the best and engage the rest

Let’s pretend we’ve overcome all the hurdles thrown down by assessing high-flying and diverse individuals. We’re drawn a short-list of two.

Both possess a breadth and depth of cross-industry and sector experience. Both have successfully delivered organisational strategies with demonstrable results and the references to boot. Both are articulate, objectively bright and with personalities that enamour them to all stakeholders.

Who do you choose?

The answer is the one that will deliver results now while growing and adapting to deliver more in the future. And here’s how in four steps:

Step 1: Identify critical success criteria

At Let’s Talk Talent, we’ve leveraged reliable scientific research with years of experience and expertise of working with leaders to create our own executive assessment model.

The model considers emotional and cognitive IQ, learning agility, past performance, senior leadership competencies and other leadership characteristics required specifically for the client’s organisation.   

Past performance is important to understand if someone can deliver results today. Potential is key to identifying their propensity to excel tomorrow.

The model retains the critical success criteria to remain consistent to ensure a robust core, while incorporating the client’s context and culture considers nuances.  For example, the skill and the will to operate within the governance of a publicly listed company may differ greatly from that of a family-owned business in another continent. Alternatively, an informal and creative individual could struggle in a bureaucratic and formal setting. In either case, a single assessment alone is not enough to uncover the answers.

Step 2: Multiple assessments

They say variety is the spice of life. But when it comes to executives, a variety of assessment methods is your best friend and will increase your chances of making the right decision. Let’s start with intelligence.

Cognitive ability tests are the biggest single variable predictor of job performance. These gems of assessment, if used correctly, will reliably predict how quickly and accurately an individual can process and use information in business settings.

In addition, these tests help to inform how well someone can deal with complexity, ambiguity and the unknown to meet objectives and solve problems that don’t yet exist. Mix this data with leadership assessments, psychological interviews (including the organisation’s competencies) and you have yourself a credible assessment against your criteria.

Step 3: Engage all applicants

Confession time. I’ve put this as step 3, but in fact engaging ALL the applicants means doing so from start to finish in your process. At Let’s Talk Talent, we offer all applicants a briefing call ahead of the assessments to communicate exactly what we’re doing but more importantly to allow them to share any questions or concerns.

A clinical process that resembles a corporate survival of the fittest game show where the winner takes it all and the rest are ejected is a fast-track to irreparable brand and reputation damage. Inherent in our process is a feedback session with a developmental focus.

Applicants at this level will want to know why they’ve been unsuccessful as standard. Go further. Tell them where you see their development priorities based on the rich data mined during the assessment process. Explaining how they can leverage their strengths to come back stronger reframes the conversation as human-centred and positions you as thought leader.

Imagine an applicant’s sentiment towards a process that boosts their self-awareness and equips them with information from which they can develop; arguably a rarity at the executive level.

Step 4: Develop the selected

Bingo. You’ve engaged and objectively selected the best applicant to drive sustainable success in your organisation.

However, having the potential to go further is one thing, but realising your potential is another. Reaching new and lofty heights is dependent on several factors including motivation, experience and the environment.

Setting the right precedent by turning the assessment information into a reference for a developmental conversation with the successful applicant will greatly enhance the likelihood that their strengths are utilised quickly, and areas of risk are known and addressed systematically.

At Let’s Talk Talent, we incorporate a coaching session with every successful applicant into the process. This session results in a meaningful development plan which is shared with their manager. Regardless of the level of seniority, instilling a culture of continual growth at the very top of an organisation has notable advantages for the rest of the organisation.

Notably, it keeps development relevant, visible and valued at those at the very top of the tree. A Chairman or CEO with responsibility to develop themselves and others sends a powerful message which will permeate throughout the organisation.

Subtle Sensibilities: Recruitment vs Succession Planning

If you’re selecting a candidate for a vacant role, then you need to ensure they’re able to perform now and possess the potential to evolve alongside the organisation and faster than the world around them.

If you’re assessing executives for succession, then there should be more of an emphasis on potential than immediate readiness to excel in the role. In this case, it’s key to leverage the multiple data sources collected in the assessment process to construct a medium-to-long term development pathway.

Remember, it’s important to incorporate insight of either candidate or successor into a meaningful plan.

While stretch objectives are less relevant to an inbound CEO, options such as external coaching and executive education are still popular development tracks.

For future executives, adopting a trusted 70-20-10 model of development (70% on-the-job, 20% coaching and mentoring, 10% formal learning) as a career accelerator is strongly advisable.

Consider curating relevant on-the-job opportunities such as secondments, placements, special projects and stretch objectives with built in mechanism for feedback and reflection as staples.

Then supplement with external coaching and internal mentoring (The “20”), before considering formal development routes to obtain and sharpen soft and hard leadership skills.