Fast-track to the top

by HRD06 Sep 2016
As a business leader you probably know the feeling: you’ve identifi ed someone who ticks a lot of the boxes as a high-potential employee. You’ve looked at past performance and you have that nagging ‘gut feeling’ that this person could be someone to invest in. You think you’re onto a winner. However, thinking you’re onto a winner and knowing you’re onto a winner are two radically different scenarios. Thankfully, you are not alone: too many managers still rely on gut feel and their own bias over anything more insightful.

“In the identification of high-potentials, the lack of objectivity or a set of criteria in identifying potentials is still prevalent. Differentiating performance, potential and readiness to succeed in a future role does not occur,” says Dr Desmond Tan, director of consulting at DDI Singapore.

In addition to the problem of selecting candidates based on less-than-sound evidence, Tan says there’s often a lack of clarity in determining how many potentials an organisation actually needs.

“Although there is no ‘exact formula’, companies and leaders should be considering macro trends like the direction of their business/industry, government regulations/ political landscape, workforce analytics, etc, as well as micro trends in terms of what is happening within their own organisations, operational needs and the structure/processes/ resources needed to support such a program,” he says.

It’s also worth noting that the government recognises that the economic outlook isn’t very positive, so they are providing subsidies to ensure companies are able to offer development programs to employees in these difficult times.

A discipline rather than ad hoc
Tan says it is often much easier to launch a leadership development program than it is to sustain their effectiveness via effective behaviour change – bearing in mind that this is happening in an environment of rapid and volatile changes.

“When we look at organisations that have generated impressive gains in the form of behaviour change, skill enhancement and stronger leadership performance, they do one thing differently. They make leadership acceleration a discipline. These organisations keep score on the right outcomes, and ownership of converting leaders from ‘Not Ready’ to ‘Ready’ is clearly defined,” Tan says.

Tan cites an example of an organisation that failed to meet its financial goals: does that fall solely on the finance department? No – everyone in the organisation had a role to play, from the sales team that failed to hit revenue numbers, to the various departments which were unable to minimise their costs, and so on.

In DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2016, 85% of the respondents identified senior management as the ones accountable for developing high-potential leaders. However, only slightly more than half of HR leaders indicated that their organisation has a mentoring/coaching program specifically designed to address the unique needs of high-potentials. Yet, when asked what development practices most affected leadership
development quality, high-potentials selected mentoring by a significant margin. HR must address this disconnect between two very important organisational constituencies.

“At the end of the day, organisations need to realise that growing talent is not a job for HR alone. We need leaders across the whole organisation to grow leaders,” Tan says. “This is what DDI means when we say leadership acceleration needs to be a discipline, not just ‘another’ initiative.”

Another key consideration is recognising that no one can ever be fully ready to step into leadership roles.

“The reality is that the world will inevitably present new challenges for leaders, so the only viable response is to constantly and continually prepare for what lies ahead,” Tan says. “‘Ready Now’ is not a permanent place at which individuals arrive or a state that organisations achieve. What we need to do is to help future leaders change their mindset to continually look forward, scan the environment in anticipation for the next challenge, and work with discipline to prepare for it.”

Finally, leadership acceleration requires experimentation; failure at some point is inevitable.

“Pressure to produce results in the face of competition, scrutiny, and urgency breeds impatience,” Tan explains. “Strong performers will find themselves in situations that test their competence and stamina. Senior executives and managers will similarly struggle to demonstrate they are affecting change. We can’t just give up when a future leader fails in a key assignment and relegate them to obscurity.”

The most innovative, agile organisations in the world crush the impulse to punish failure and cultivate the practice of capitalising on it. They ensure that failures are small, frequent, fast, and useful.

“When we capture the learning from a disappointment and channel it to support a leader in taking on a new and different challenge, fortitude is bolstered, confidence increased, and momentum built,” Tan says.

Accelerating your high-potentials
DDI’s Acceleration Imperatives (see box) is a system of parts – similar to a car and the various components that complement one another for the vehicle to work.

“When we look closely at each of these Acceleration Imperatives, you’ll find that none of them are new concepts. If you are a veteran of leadership acceleration, you likely have had hands-on experience with most or all of them,” Tan says.

However, while the descriptions of each imperative might seem like common-sense steps to success, many organisations are still facing challenges at each step – including identifying high-potentials.

Tan suggests that identifying high-potential talent starts with one question:‘What are we identifying the talent for?’ The answer can be something as simple as identifying talent to be department heads in three years’ time. However, there are many more questions that follow. For example:
  • What will department heads need to be able to do now?
  • Will those demands still be the same in three years’ time?
  • Will the business itself still be the same in three years’ time? 
DDI uses business drivers as the starting point in identifying talent. Business drivers are the broad leadership challenges that must be hurdled to execute an organisation’s strategic and cultural priorities and to drive the business forward. Once these have been identified, leaders would know what to focus on and what is to be achieved. In turn, the organisation would know which specific skills and capabilities have to be developed in its leaders to drive these business goals.

“In short, organisations will need to specify precisely what their leadership priorities are, where will the leaders be needed, how many the organisation needs and when the leaders will be ready,” Tan says. “Based on the organisation’s leadership priorities and gaps, choices will need to be made on how to identify leadership potential, assess readiness, accelerate growth, and drive performance, etc.”

Business leaders are also aware that HR can sometimes struggle to demonstrate return on investment when it comes to high-potential programs. Measurement of leadership development initiatives can be tedious and time-consuming – which is why HR often feel intimidated by it. That reluctance is aggravated if they focus on the wrong outcomes to be measured – finding out only later that all their efforts were in vain.

Tan says the one metric to look at is growth – and growth only happens when learning is applied to performance, which is how the measurement targets of a leadership acceleration system must be aimed.

“Our advice is to choose only the most crucial metrics of growth and relentlessly pursue them,” Tan says. “It is far better to measure very few things well than to measure many things inaccurately.”

DDI recommends the use of an Acceleration Dashboard that would ensure that the organisation will identify the most important outcomes of success and that talent growth is directly tied to business objectives. This would include: Talent reviews completed, high-potential leaders identified, learning courses conducted, percentage of ready-now leaders, business impact of development, and retention rate of key talent.

As reliable as your ‘gut feel’ might be, today’s tools will ensure your organisation’s leadership pipeline remains flexible and agile enough to shift with the changing times in which businesses operate.

Development Dimensions International (DDI) helps companies transform the way they hire, promote, and develop their leaders and workforce. Our
expertise includes:
  • Talent Acquisition–Increase selection precision to reduce turnover and speed up productivity.
  • Leadership Development – Develop leadership skills at every level.
  • Succession Management – Identify leadership potential earlier, accelerate growth, and prepare for key transitions.

Most Read