Who’s the Real Leader in Your Office?
This is a guest post by Jeffrey Cohn and Jay Moran, authors of Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders?
How often have you wondered who the real leader is in your office? Maybe you need to delegate a critical project, and you can’t afford to put your faith in someone who is not up to the job. Or maybe you work under several managers, and you want to make sure that you are building rapport with the one who counts. Or maybe you’d like to do some self-inventory in order to gauge how far you might rise after four or five additional years. All of these are good reasons for wondering how to accurately assess leadership potential.
Unfortunately, most people have been taught to think about this issue in all the wrong ways. As a society, we rely on some rather misguided ideas about leadership success. As a result, when it comes to leadership selection decisions, we commit some pretty big errors.
The first mistake stems from not knowing what qualities to seek in potential leaders. For decades we have been told that a charismatic personality, or Ivy-League training, or certain style, make all the difference. They don’t. None of these factors is a reliable predictor of leadership effectiveness. Other times we focus on qualities that do matter, but we don’t go far enough to seek a healthy balance. For example, we gravitate toward individuals who possess enormous passion and vision, but who lack solid character. Or we promote people with impressive courage, but who lack enough empathy to handle sticky social situations.
The second big mistake we make when trying to judge leadership potential is the use of insufficient assessment techniques. In other words, even when we know what to look for, we don’t know how to look. We rely on backward looking interview questions, or inappropriate personality tests, or letters of reference from those who simply cannot predict how a person will perform in a fundamentally new position. Even the perennial favorite among promotion criteria – prior performance – is not a good indicator of future leadership success. At best, it tells only half the story. A solid manager with ten years of experience in sales, for example, might be poorly suited for a generalist role that will require her to lead an entire division.
In our book Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders? the two of us answer these crucial “what” and “how” questions. Based on more than fifteen years of experience working with premiere executive education programs and some of the best organizations in the world, we explain how to identify the very best leaders. Here are some highlights that will help you make your own determination:
• Focus on the Qualities that Count. There are seven essential attributes of leadership success—integrity, empathy, emotional intelligence, vision, judgment, courage and passion. Take away just one, and a person who is called upon to lead will eventually fail. For example, former BP CEO Tony Hayward successfully climbed the corporate ladder for more than 25 years. But when the Deepwater Horizon exploded in 2010, his leadership faced a stiff challenge. In particular, he needed a strong sense of empathy to deal with an outraged public and a diverse set of competing constituents. Unfortunately, he was not up to the task. During an early interview, he claimed that the oil spill was “relatively tiny” compared with the “very big ocean,” and he consistently underestimated the extent of the leak. Obviously the spill wasn’t tiny from the vantage point of the Gulf Coast fishermen who lived nearby. Worse was the comment Hayward posted on Facebook to the effect that more than anyone else, he wanted the crisis to be over because, he said, “I want my life back.” This quip was widely seen as insensitive to the men whose lives had been lost in the explosion. President Obama responded, “He wouldn’t be working for me after any of those statements,” and although his days were probably already numbered, that was the last straw. Hayward lacked the kind of empathy that leaders need to survive.
• Use the Right Assessment Techniques. Not too long ago, we met with a Fortune 500 president who was reeling from a poor hiring decision. Just six months after filling a key position, the company had to terminate its new hire and start a search all over again. When we asked the president how he and his team chose the person who was originally selected, he said: “He [the candidate who was hired] had great experience in the industry, a track record of turning around underperforming business, and already had relationships with several of our largest customers.” In addition, the company hired a search firm that conducted extensive background referencing, and all signs were positive. The candidate was results-oriented, friendly, well liked, and driven. While these findings sounded good, further investigation on our part revealed that the president fell into some classic assessment traps. The most serious mistake he made was relying on an evaluation process that was essentially backward looking. The president spent large amounts of time going over the candidate’s résumé and credentials: he asked about prior successes and failures, he asked others how the candidate performed, and so on. But this backward-looking investigation has limited predictive value when trying to determine a candidate’s likely success in a fundamentally new position. In our assessment practice, we overcome this obstacle by using a variety of different techniques, including simulations and case studies, direct observation in group settings, and specially created hypothetical scenarios that test a candidate’s leadership potential. This last technique is critical because it is forward looking. Unlike a typical interview question that asks candidates to discuss what happened in the past, these hypothetical situations present candidates with unfamiliar and challenging leadership situations. No amount of preparation or interview savvy will enable a candidate to fudge her answer or game the interview process.
For more information on how the best companies in the world find first-rate leaders, including how to order Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders? visit PickingBetterLeaders.com or email the authors directly at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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