Test the mettle of future high-flyers

Don’t shield them from traumas which serve to mould them into becoming
business leaders

Many organisations recognise that recruiting and retaining talented people
is crucial to future success, and are developing programmes specifically aimed
at high-flyers.

But it is debatable whether these schemes will really deliver the skills
that will give companies a competitive advantage. Existing research suggests a
more forward-looking approach is needed.

Typically, the high-flyer’s journey involves three stages: identification
that they are worthy of greater attention; a transition period lasting eight
years on average; and incorporation into a key position.

In most instances competencies will be the key, and possibly the only
selection criteria.

Many diverse characteristics are associated with successful business
leaders, including strategic thinking, entrepreneurship, political acumen,
pragmatism and dedication. So an important issue for HR is to know which
competencies to assess.

However, my main concern, in terms of qualities required of top managers, is
this methodology focuses on the high-flyer’s destination, which is usually some
senior management role, rather than their journey.

Concentrating on what we want individuals to become has significant
drawbacks. We cannot expect to find miniature versions of high achievers in the
same way we spot great football talent in young children.

It is how high-flyers handle the key transition points that determine their
future performance. Nor can we be sure that cloning business leaders of 2002
will produce the leaders required 10 years from now.

Change is so rapid that managers could be outdated before they reach the end
of theproduction line. High-flyers have to be able to adapt to new roles and
circumstances because the future is less predictable. This, in turn, requires
different forms of assessment.

Specific competency lists are too general, too bland and, more importantly,
too present and past oriented. One solution is to augment them with
‘meta-competencies’ that are checked throughout someone’s career.

If we define potential as "the ability to learn from experiences one
might have in the future" (McCall, 1998), then new capabilities and the
ability to adapt become all important. These might include being able to see
things from new angles, adapting to cultural differences, and being open to

As competency analysts, we must encourage clients to envisage how the world
might be by the time high-flyers reach the top. When we do this, quite
different competencies emerge, such as learning, diversity and environmental

Development methods would also need to change. Coaching, secondment and
study courses have their place, but what about the learning experiences
executives find most valuable, such as assignments, hardships, other people and
events? Executives say that hardships are critical in their journey to the top.

Too often though, high-flyers are shielded from hardships for fear of upsetting
them. Often adverse conditions such as business failures, a missed promotion or
personal traumas have the greatest impact.

We need to find ways of seeing how our high-flyers react to these events.
How do they learn from them? How do they perform?

Obviously you cannot conjure up these situations, but we could do other
things to make such powerful experiences part of a systematic learning
programme. If it is not feasible to create internal special projects or
start-ups, look at providing external opportunities through charity work,
non-executive directorships or career breaks.

It is essential to know how people cope in difficult or demanding situations
and how they respond to setbacks and obstacles. Every competency has its dark
side, after all.

If employers don’t assess high-flyers’ strengths to see if they become
weaknesses, ‘derailment’ remains a real possibility.

By continuing to focus on the destination, not the journey, the results not
the process, and strengths not the learning, we will seriously overestimate
some people and seriously underestimate others.

By Binna Kandola a partner of occupational psychologists Pearn Kandola

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