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Rewriting The Rules Around Leadership Selection


By Marianna Zangrillo and Thomas Keil

When is a high-performing leader a candidate for the leadership team?


When are they ready to take the final step to become a leadership team member?


These are questions HRDs ask themselves time and time again.


They mostly do it because there is a wildly-held view in HR circles that those who demonstrate getting things done (and therefore ‘appear’ to be promotion-material) are actually not always the best at getting others to get things done.


The trouble is, if these people aren’t the best to promote, then who are? Especially when we have to factor in the skills modern leaders actually need – like how to response to things like digitalization, AI, deglobalization, sustainability as well as diversity and inclusion.


Some might say it points to the rule book for leadership team selection needing to be rewritten; that organizations need to fundamentally re-calibrate the traditional benchmarks required for membership in the leadership team.


But what should we write? What re-calibrations are needed?


What got you there in the past no longer works

As hinted it, promotion to the leadership echelon typically depended upon a proven track record within the industry and an undeniable display of ambition demonstrated by working long hours, weekends, and the willingness to put the company ahead of everything else.

High potentials would either make a career in one firm or eventually be headhunted to a senior position by a competitor. The path to the leadership team was typically a linear trajectory, populated by individuals with a specialized skill set, such as the ability to sell, analytical skills or negotiation expertise, honed through years of experience and a deep-rooted network within the company.


While these skills are still needed, they no longer suffice to qualify for the leadership team. This is because the boundaries of companies are blurring and business models need to be reinvented due to technological change. The foundations of companies are in flux too, due to the global challenges the world faces and the novel demands of powerful stakeholder groups.


Redefining skillsets

Today, leadership team members need to both demonstrate and master a more versatile array of skills and abilities to be ready for future leadership needs.


Members of the leadership team need to provide a strong strategic vision and have the ability to inspire those around them.


They need to lead diverse teams where the expertise lies with the team and not the leader.

Often, they need to collaborate with their peers in addition to thriving through ruthless competition.


Today’s leadership team members also need to be attuned to the rest of their teams and pay attention to the well-being of employees.


Finally, for today’s leadership team members, it is vital to have developed the ability to balance societal impact with financial results and to harmonize long-term ambitions with immediate objectives.


Re-imagining resumes: The new norms

So, given these requirements for the leadership team, what should the CV of a potential candidate for the leadership team look like?


Traditional CVs that list a continuous, professional career progression are not likely to be sufficient because they do not produce the breadth of experience that tomorrow’s challenges will need.


Tomorrow’s leadership team members are more likely to have followed a non-linear career path that may include parental leave, sabbaticals and other forms of breaks, changes in career, and shifts between the not-for-profit or public sector and the for-profit sector.


The best next-generation leaders will have lived in multiple countries and have been exposed to multiple cultures. Their passion for learning will stem from a desire to broaden their understanding and form connections with different cultures, truly embodying the spirit of diversity.


Finding these people

Identifying and systematically developing such talent is a major challenge for contemporary organizations.


In many companies, talent management systems still systematically filter out CVs with gaps, career side-steps into unrelated industries, or other ways in which they don’t follow a linear career progression.


As a result, talent management may sidetrack the very candidates that are needed for future leadership teams.


Our perspective on talent assessment must undergo a radical change.


Talent evaluation needs to be adjusted to focus on valuing and attracting candidates focused on learning and creating value for the organization, rather than looking at short-term delivery or their next promotion or salary rise.


With the changing landscape of leadership, the skills that were once seen as detriments may become the prized attributes of the future, and therefore, in addition to traditional business competencies, a much broader set of skills should be given credit.


What characteristics will be needed will undoubtedly change over time, and the best organizations will regularly update their list of capabilities.


But what remains constant is that by enriching the set of characteristics to look for in leaders, organizations can future-proof their leadership team and the organization at large.


How do firms develop such talent

Individuals with the skills described are rare in most organizations.


The people function plays a vital role in creating a set of rich experiences to allow high potentials to gain the breadth of skills necessary for the future.


Considering the limitations of gaining varied experiences within a single organization, future talent development should consider letting talent leave the organization temporarily to gain different experiences elsewhere, on the understanding that they return with their richer set of experiences.


We see this happening when organizations send their people to work in another office or rotate them across roles. But this is a long way from the experience that can be acquired from working in very different organizations.


Such high-potentials could be linked to the organization through alumni programs, such as consulting companies, and considered for senior leadership positions at a later stage.

Talent development should systematically follow the career path of talented leaders who leave the organization to bring some of them back later.


Conclusions

The criteria for leadership are changing.


It’s time for businesses to adapt and create opportunities for a new breed of leaders.


After all, future-proofing our organizations starts with future-proofing our leadership teams.


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