Thursday, July 25, 2013

Good leaders leave big talent footprints

When my dad passed away a few years ago, I was proud to see how many of his previous co-workers came.  Several of them mentioned how he personally chose and mentored them and what an impact he had on them. These were people that worked for him 10, 20, 30 years ago.

At the time, I remember marveling at the impact that one person can have on others.  And how important leadership is, both personally and organizationally.

Leadership is one of the oldest topics in organizational behavior, yet remains as popular today as ever.  Why?  Many reasons:

. Leaders are important.  They have an enormous impact on those they influence or control, and this remains the case even in today's more decentralized organizational approaches.

. Leadership is hard.  To be successful, most leaders need to display an amazing array of behavior, such as flexibility, analytical strength, assertiveness, listening ability, creativity, patience, drive, and vision.

. Many leaders are bad.  I consistently see rates of around 25-50% for successful leaders.  Which isn't too surprising when you think about the previous point--how many people are capable of exhibiting and balancing all of this behavior?

. Successful leadership can be hard to measure.  Surveys are of course one way to measure, but they have inherent problems such as response rate. Productivity is a good one as well, but that can be defined in many ways and is also influenced by a wide variety of environmental factors.

. Leaders can be hard to identify, because of the aforementioned factors.  A simple interview won't cut it when it comes to assessing for a leadership role.  Even assessment centers are only so effective when it comes to predicting performance.

All this had me thinking...what happens in an organization or work unit when you have an effective leader?  Specifically, what is the impact to those around them?  Even more specifically, what has been their "talent footprint"?

If you're a good leader, what type of lasting impact do you have on the people around you?  

I have some ideas, and If you think about bosses you've had that were exemplary, chances are you'll recognize some of these indicators:

- Good leaders personally recruit and hire the best.  They have a clear vision of what competencies are required for a position and they have a clear-headed approach to seeking out, attracting, and rigorously assessing to ensure a good match.  When you ask your best performers who recruited and hired them, nine times out of ten they'll identify one of your best leaders.

- Good leaders promote their subordinates.  They support their team members, mentor them, and prepare them for promotional opportunities.  They make it clear that if you succeed, you have a career path in the organization.

- Or help subordinates promote elsewhere.  In situations where a promotional position doesn't exist at the time, good leaders help star employees seek fame and fortune elsewhere--and wish them well.  On the flipside, bad leaders see star performance transfer elsewhere for no increase in pay or responsibility.

- Good leaders get boomerangs.  Because they support and mentor their employees--even helping them get promotions elsewhere when necessary--they're more likely to be a return destination by said employees in the future.

- Good leaders are followed when they move.  They are so well thought-of that high performers are willing to follow them to new positions, units, or organizations even though it means big changes and possibly no pay increase.

- Good leaders attract internal star performers.  When you ask your high performers where they want to work, they indicate units overseen by good leaders.

So assuming you're with me on this, how do you measure these factors when hiring for a leadership position?  That's where things get a little tricky.

For internal candidates, you should be able to gather history through observation and discussion.  In fact--frankly--you should be able to quickly identify these individuals if you're paying attention.

For external candidates, there are at least a couple ways:

1) Ask them.  Yep, you can integrate this into your interview process.  Ask questions such as, "Which high performers in your organization have you personally recruited and hired?"  "Which have you personally promoted?"  "Which have returned to work for you after working somewhere else?"

2) Integrate this into your reference checking process.  Find out who the high performers are that worked under your applicant and ask them questions that get at the points above.  This has the additional benefit of potentially identifying applicants you weren't even considering!

There is at least one important caveat to all this: it's unlikely good leaders will leave this footprint in a short amount of time.  And if a good leader is entering into a bad environment or one that needs to be turned around, it will likely take years for the impact to be felt.

So like all assessment methods, this approach will work best in certain situations, like executive-level selection.  But it's something to add to your tool belt as an assessment professional.

And something to think about in your group, organization, and--for those of you that lead--your daily work life.

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