The Crystal ball for Assessing Leadership Potential
“This is all rubbish and just “belle-lettres” with no substance!” The disdain in the cold blue eyes opposite me were now turning into anger. I held my breath: the feedback session with a manager who had been passed by for a promotion was not going well. “I have been in this business for years now, never had a bad appraisal, and you are telling me I am “not strategic enough!”
How could I explain to him that doing well in the job that he is doing will not make him a good senior manager? How many times do those promoted to bigger jobs based on past success fail spectacularly in a new role, ruining their careers and taking their teams – and sometimes the whole businesses – down with them?
Now more than ever we need leaders who can make good decisions in the fog, be open to NEW opportunities and adjust quickly when times change; someone who can learn fast and fail – well, fast – but ideally less often and with less dramatic consequences.
Yes, the best way to recruit someone to fit a job is of course to find out whether they were successful in doing this job before. But what if the job has never been done? What if the “tasks” keep expanding, the complexity is growing exponentially, and the “tried and tested“ methods are not fitting new circumstances? In this case, you need to look for Potential – not what a person was able to do in the past, but what they are capable of doing in the future.
But where to find the Crystal ball to predict the future? We all wish it was possible – the bad news – it is not. Yet you can increase your odds of predicting successfully if you know what signs to look out for.
Korn Ferry have developed a comprehensive tool, a questionnaire, that helps identify those signs through specific behaviours, ways of thinking and approaches.
The beauty of the tool is that it also gives a clear language for those who coach the leaders.
Using the tool, I can now avoid vague labels of “not strategic enough” and rely on research and data to highlight the markers of potential. When I use KFALP as the basis for feedback, my coachees listen avidly, recognise themselves easily (even those who normally struggle with self-awareness) and, most importantly, they understand where and why they need to stretch themselves in order to be ready for future challenges.
So, what are the markers of Potential according to Korn Ferry research?
This lies at the heart of the concept of Potential. The ability to learn, be curious and have a keen interest in discovering more predicts how fast you get to grips with a new role or an unexpected challenge. But learning is not just a single talent – we all learn different things at a different speed and have some parts of our brains working better than others. For Leadership, there are four sides of Learning Agility that matter. One is Mental Agility. It is not about being smart or being good at maths. Mental Agility is an ability to grasp theories and concepts, make unexpected connections, and enjoy the complexity, rather than being spooked by it. Mentally agile leaders want to know more about many things and can get a spark of inspiration about a business problem by… studying ants, for example.
Another one is People Agility, which is so different that we rarely see people who are both mentally and people agile (there are some though and they are truly fantastic leaders!). If you have People Agility, you are intensely curious about those around you: you spot their interests, understand the relationships, guess quickly how to influence them and how to get the most out of collaboration.
The third side of Learning Agility is Change. Are you a leader who senses the change in the air well before anybody else does? Can you anticipate what will be happening in the market, industry or your business? And how comfortable are you to change your ways of working to adapt to this change? Are you still whining about “the old times” or truly enjoy learning something new?
The fourth side is Results Agility. This shows tenacity and inventiveness – when things get tough, result agile leaders do not give up, but come up with new ways of approaching a problem and start again. They do not settle for “it will do” and set ever more ambitious goals for themselves and others, learning to be better all the way.
The underlying marker for Potential is Self-awareness. Yes, we do need to constantly learn about our changing surroundings, but it is crucially important to start with oneself – to learn about your own strengths, preferences, motivations and deep values. Self-reflective leaders, who are aware of the inner self as well as the image they portray, could settle easier and more authentically in a new environment. Yet an even bigger challenge and a more important marker for potential is Situational Self-awareness when a leader does not just reflect on what has happened but is present in the moment when they can be conscious about their environment, people and circumstances, and at the same time understand how this environment influences them. Am I getting angry? What makes me angry? Is it helpful in the moment? How can I manage it if it is not? This constant self-scanning process happens in a situationally self-aware leader without them even noticing and the ability to adapt based on these findings matters a lot for the success of any interaction.
Self-awareness and Learning Agility are crucial for anyone who wants to be successful in the future. Yet for those who are already leaders of other people, they are not enough. If you have a team following you, you have to be able to let go of detail and be able to see a bigger picture, formulate a compelling vision, set longer-term goals and be bold in pursuing them even in the face of obstacles. It is important to notice though, that the above Focus, Persistence and Assertiveness should still be displayed in moderation – yes, they are markers of Potential, but if they are demonstrated too much, a leader can risk alienating the team or moving too far from the everyday reality of the business. The same with Tolerance of Ambiguity – another important leadership trait that marks Potential. Nobody can know everything in a new environment, taking a bigger role in this changing time will challenge a new leader with a huge amount of the unknown, without any recourse to anybody’s advice or written guidance – only those who will not get stressed by this can succeed, yet it is important not to disregard any scraps of evidence you can collect before making a bold decision. Many leaders were surprised to see Optimism as the 5th leadership trait, but without an authentic belief in positive outcomes, it is nearly impossible to inspire others in times of uncertainty.
A few bright careers have been blighted by a trait that withers even great Potential. They are Volatility, Micromanagement and Closeness. Nobody can see and do everything. Even the most fantastic minds who start believing in their god-like abilities and stop listening to others may miss great opportunities or ignore serious threats. Micromanagers, of course, stifle the teams and limit the creativity, but they also cut the wings of their own Potential by eating up time that could be better spent on development and growth. In terms of the right balance of emotions, nobody wants to be led by a cold fish, showing a bit of vulnerability and a human side is good for a leader, yet if they struggle to control their moods, be it bouts of anger, despair, or unwarranted enthusiasm, the danger sign should flash for the leader themselves, their teams, and their cause.
You would say that is a contradiction – I have been telling you that KFALP is assessing future potential, not past experience, and now Experience is announced as a marker of Potential. But what matters is how we view the experience in question – the variety of it. If you have tried something, the chances are that you can pick up a similar challenge faster, you can relate to people in similar situations easily and you have a more open mind. I call the 3 facets of Experience KFALP is looking at height, width and depth.
Height is about the different steps on the career ladder that you tried. If over the time of your career you lead a team, have tasted a lot of middle management and run a department as a senior leader you will relate better to all levels in your organisation than someone who has been too fast to reach the very top or too slow to only try one level of management.
Width is about the variety of things you have tried – different functions, different industries, different countries. Each one opens a new perspective, allowing you to see life from different angles.
Depth is about how complex the challenges you faced. Those who have been involved in a start-up, or managed mergers, or had to restructure or shut down a business learnt much more than those who worked in stable roles without major “earthquakes”. They have more resilience to face the unknown and confidence in being able to overcome difficulties.
When companies make decisions on promotion they focus on a person’s abilities and skills, something that a leader could bring to an organisation. However, this could not just be a one-way street – it is very important to understand what a leader truly wants and will this new opportunity fits their desires. That is why we look at Advancement Drive and Role Preference – is the person blossoming in an expert role? How would they feel to be a general manager out of their area of expertise? Do they really crave the status you are offering or do they get satisfaction from how meaningful a job is? All kinds of Drivers make sense and can lead to realising one’s potential, what matters is the match between an opportunity and true individual motivation. It is important to know that the Drivers can change with important life changes and career progression.
The Korn Ferry Assessment of Leadership Potential covers all the above markers of Potential and opens a door to a rich discussion, both at the organisational level while making decisions, but also at an individual level while helping someone to be even better.
I wish I was familiar with the KFALP tool all these years ago when I was giving feedback to my angry leader I mentioned before. Yet I managed with what I knew at the time
“You are right,” I said. “It is all just belle-lettres. But the point is, you know, if you want to be a true leader, you need to have A-grades in these belle-lettres – imagination, ability to improvise, to understand yourself and others. It is just not enough to study only hard maths or technical skills and get solid experience. You need to be able to listen, be agile, predict the unpredictable, and be curious. That’s our world, whether we like it or not.”
The future will be bright for those who can take in their stride whatever comes their way and keep learning. It is THEY who have the potential to succeed.
Anna Slocombe is a Management Dynamics Associate specialising in Career Coaching & Development, Cross Cultural awareness, Korn Ferry Assessment of Leadership Potential and Korn Ferry 360, as well as being a member of CIPD and certified in MBTI and SHL.
If you want to find out more about the Korn Ferry Assessing Leadership Potential, get in touch today.
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