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Laura Brennand


Lead Consultant

Read more about Laura Brennand

Top talent? I’d wager you’re getting it wrong


It’s evident in every organisation that some point your star performers will be prompted into a leadership role.  But does their success in their field mean that they’ll be a success as a leader? Honestly, the answer is probably not.

It’s an inevitable reality right now that too many people embarking on leadership programmes will never make great leaders because they simply don’t have the raw potential to make it as a leader. The programmes in place are often a waste of money, time and energy. 

All too often, organisational heads get it wrong because of an assumption that great technical specialism equates to great leadership skills. This is just not true. We see talented people in our roles all the time, yet there is a marked difference between being exceptionally good in a particular function and having true potential to get to the top.

If companies truly want – or need to – make the most from potential leaders, then it is crucial to make this distinction.  

In fact, many organisations wrongly believe they are measuring and attracting the right talent in the right way, but actually, our research shows that most organisations get it wrong, 75% of the time. Getting it wrong and promoting the wrong people to leadership roles can have a massive impact on the business; not only have you removed a high performer from a role they excel in but you also incur the cost time and energy of a mis-hire in a leadership position.

Let’s take a sales role, for example. I use this as it’s in sales and service roles we see this happen most commonly – albeit this is certainly not unique to such organisations. An individual who is excellent in a sales role for example is likely to be ego centric, independent and will thrive on competition.  In a leadership position these traits are likely to generate to a command and conquer leadership style, creating heroes who ‘save the day’ rather than leaders who empower their teams.

We worked recently with a FTSE 100 sales organisation who felt the impact of not objectively measuring their top talent. The business in question was and is performing well, maintaining their position as market leaders for the past 2 years and dominating a relatively flat market.  With growing competition in the industry in 2013, they soon found it tough to achieve the top line growth they’d predicted, so they wanted to understand and gain insight into their current sales force and leadership population.

Our insight showed that their high performing leaders were in fact the profile of high performing sales people – they had a strong value for competition, had a degree of independence and wanted to feed their ego and be recognised for their personal achievements.

Whilst the organisation’s performance and experience-led model worked well when the market was healthy, when the market shifted and got tougher, the leadership skills required to empower the business to “step up” and keep ahead of the curve were absent and this had a trickling effect on the rest of the sales population. They quickly found that the talented people they believed would be excellent leaders weren’t demonstrating great leadership in the way the organisation expected, but “saving the day” when times got tough. This wasn’t a sustainable approach for them in the long-term. The result was a decline in their profit growth by 8%.

We’ve known for a long time that experience on its own doesn’t create a good leader, yet organisations tend to look at someone in a role they’ve been brilliant in and assume that will transfer into leadership. Yes, experience helps inform, but these days that just isn’t enough.

The truth is, until now, organisations haven’t really known how to measure this.

In our ever-changing world, where technology changes faster than you can click your fingers, organisations are continually adapting to new ways of working. So much is brand new that experience is no longer the key differentiator. If we’ve never worked in a particular way before, how can previous experience possibly be the key predictor of success?

At the same time, the typical career progression prevalent in so many businesses, where talented individuals move upwards from roles they are brilliant at, to director roles and maybe even to board level, is often where succession planning goes wrong.

Often, people fail to look left or right within the organisation and at other opportunities within the business. Succession planning should be about “right individual, right role” and this is defined by more than just experience or behaviour, but what someone values and is motivated by at work.  It’s up to organisations to educate their people on the opportunities available to them, based not only on experience, but that fit with their innate values, motivations and behavioural strengths.  Rewarding others by giving them bigger responsibilities, increased exposure and in turn, pay rises within the roles they will excel at are just as, if not more effective motivators. They gain exponentially, in terms of knowledge about the business, its people, culture and how to handle new and unique situations.

So how can organisations identify great leaders if moving talented people upwards isn’t always the right thing to do?

Great leadership looks different for every business: every organisation and every individual is unique, so an effective leader will mean something different. It’s why I don’t believe in a generic leadership profile but there’s one thing that the best leaders should (and do!) possess: Self-awareness.  This is crucial in a potential leader: it’s just as important to know what you are bad at as it is to know what you are good at. The best leaders then surround themselves with people who are brilliant at the things they are not so naturally good at to enable them to focus on the areas where they can add real value as a leader.

So how do you define “what great looks like” for a leader in your organisation?

Organisations need to analyse and identify what ‘great’ looks like for them: what are they trying to achieve as a business? What are their core values? Why do they exist? What is their purpose?

And at an individual level, it’s about truly understanding the motivation and values which drive behaviour. That’s the raw stuff which is the most difficult to change, but it gives a clear indication, when measured objectively using psychometric testing and behavioural interviews, as to the individual’s propensity to excel at leadership.

Identifying and creating a great leader population won’t happen overnight, it requires a healthy balance of subjective and objective measuring and that can take time. But it’s worth it.

Once companies can identify the distinction between great talent and great leadership talent in their organisation, the return on investment becomes priceless. For the sales organisation example, they saw increased engagement scores, productivity and an increase in sales revenue performance. Most importantly, the leadership population will have the strength the business needs to maintain these results for the future.

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Laura Brennand

Lead Consultant

Read more from Laura Brennand

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