Why Can’t We Figure Out How to Select Leaders?
Managers discuss their own experience in organizations in response to February's column. All good leaders teach as well as learn, says Jim Heskett. Is it possible with any degree of confidence to select people for certain leadership jobs? (Forum now closed. Next forum begins March 5.)
How do we close the gap between theory and results in selecting leaders? In discussing why our achievements in selecting leaders are less than stellar, contributors offered a rich set of ideas. Given their number, I've tried to categorize them into several categories. First were those essentially enumerating the qualities that we should look for in a leader without suggesting how we identify and select for them. Some of the more interesting ones included Kapil Kumar Sopory's suggestion that we look for "... the person with the biggest fire inside of them...." Rowland Freeman would ask, "... how will the selected individual handle power?" Edward Hare suggested that results fall short of expectations "... because we don't understand motives (of the candidate for the leadership position) ... How many aspiring leaders are not genuine or authentic? They're the ones that scare me." These comments raise the question of how much theory tells us about selecting for harder to measure characteristics such as possible behaviors under fire and motives as opposed to skills and past accomplishments.
A second group pointed to the body of knowledge based on research and practice that can guide and improve the selection process and its outcomes. Their message was: "We know how to do it. And here's how." As Al Shealy commented, "The research isn't being used." Dan Erwin suggested that "... cutting-edge interviewing skills can give important insight ...." Stephanie Fuentes said that "It's not hard if you take the time to do the planning and preparation." But the comments of the first group leave us wondering whether theory serves us well when it comes to selecting for such things as "fire," potential use of power, and motives. As Matthew Tuttle suggested, "Many of the traits are ... difficult to see in an interview." One answer to the challenge was suggested by Kirk Richardson: "There is only one true way to select really good leaders in a highly-predictable manner. You home-grow them ...."
A third group concentrated on why theory has had less impact on results than we might expect, essentially identifying reasons for a gap between theory and results achieved in practice. Several pointed out that since needs can't be standardized, standardized approaches may not work. As Stevan Trooboff put it, "... the problem in picking leaders lies as much with definition of what types of leadership is required as in the process of selection itself." Dean Madison asked whether, in selecting leaders, we are skipping over a more important question of "What are we trying to achieve as an organization?" Adrian Grigoriu commented that "... it shouldn't be so hard. But business leader stereotypes corrupt the selection process ...." Several others questioned the capabilities of the selectors themselves. As Ganesh Ram put it, "Unfortunately excellence does (not always) breed excellence… because some of the best leaders may still not be the best selectors." Dick Meza suggested that "The issue here may be the degree to which senior management cares about selection."
These observations raise interesting questions. Are there leadership traits that can't be measured? How do we determine what role they may play and what outcomes they may produce in a challenging situation? Which ones are relevant to the challenges that may be faced by a particular organization, at least in the opinion of those doing the selecting at one point in time? Do selectors really know what they are looking for in a leader? How do we close the gap between theory and results in selecting leaders? What do you think?
Selection is on my mind again. Perhaps it is prompted by the inauguration of a new U.S. President or the drama of leaders of our largest financial institutions worldwide struggling to justify decisions that have placed their organizations in jeopardy. I was reminded, too, of the CEO of a well-known retail organization who, I believe, would be regarded by Jim Collins (of Good to Great fame) as a Level 5 leader—"Builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will"—except for the fact that he has been plagued with bad decisions regarding his choices for senior management positions and a reluctance to repair them quickly enough. Collins writes about the need to get the wrong people off the bus, but what about the need to avoid putting the wrong people on the bus in the first place? As Capital One's CEO, Richard Fairbank, put it several years ago, "At most companies, people spend 2 percent of their time recruiting and 75 percent managing their recruiting mistakes."
Now Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers) has come forth with the proposition that there may be some jobs for which it is impossible to hire with any confidence. As he puts it, "There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired." Three that he cites in a recent article in The New Yorker are pro football quarterbacks, high-performing financial advisors, and teachers.
Learning is more strongly influenced by individual teachers, for example, than any other factor, including class size and quality of the facilities. In various studies, the truly great teachers do things like giving good, individualized feedback while remaining sensitive and responding to interactions going on around them that might indicate needs of other students. The reason that these findings are important to the field of management is that all good leaders, among other things, teach as well as learn. It requires careful listening and responding, often to individual needs. I suspect that they apply the same sensitivity to the social, economic, and legal environment in the search for effective competitive strategies.
At our institution, like many others, we've addressed the problem by hiring at least four people for every one that we expect to succeed at the tasks of teaching and research that our faculty members face. That's a solution that most business organizations would consider too costly. Some organizations have inventoried the qualities that successful employees display, then try to select others with the same qualities. But the process is often applied only to those at middle or lower levels.
Are there leadership jobs in business for which it is simply impossible to select people with any degree of confidence? Do behaviors change when one is anointed with the power of a leadership position? Are we condemned to an on-the-job training approach, with the attendant obligation to correct mistakes quickly (which boards understandably are reluctant to do)? Or are there more affordable approaches to the problem? What do you think?
To read more:
Mike McNamee, "Credit Card Revolutionary," Stanford Business, May, 2001, p. 23.
Jim Colliins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001) Note: Selecting companies for good to greatness may be just as difficult as selecting leaders. One of the 11 companies that Collins cited as going from good to great went on to bankruptcy in just seven years after the publication of the book.
Malcolm Gladwell, "Most Likely to Succeed: How do we hire when we can't tell who's right for the job?," The New Yorker, December 15, 2008, pp. 36-42.