The Search for Leaders Might Be Too Narrow

Yesterday we began an interview with Adam Canwell, the Global Leader for EY’s leadership offering in Melbourne, Australia to discuss their recent Global Leadership Forecast survey. Today we’ll look at the rest of that interview.

For the full results of the survey, click here.
Recruiting Daily Advisor: Do companies in general have a too-narrow view of who would make good leadership?
Canwell: There are two factors here.
First of all, there’s been a perceived wisdom over the past 20 years or so that organizations just need to identify a small number of people with exceptional potential to become future leaders of the organization. Organizations have been hyperfocused, trying to identify that small number who have the capability and capacity to become enterprise leaders. They put a lot into finding those people, then supercharge them with 90% of the development and training. If you get it wrong, you’ve narrowed yourself down much too much.
Secondly, you’ve put all your time and effort on less than two percent of the population, which does not make sense. Also, the fault line most people fall in is with bias. We all have a bias toward people who are similar to ourselves, so we deliberately build a narrow definition of who should go into those programs. In some ways, the definition of potential needs to be a very thick definition.
Adult development research shows that people have the ability to increase their mental capacity and have potential to grow.
In essence, the premise that we should hire a lot, but only identify a few as having potential is an old-world view of talent. Anyone we bring into an organization we should view as having almost limitless potential of what they can achieve. Let’s not push people down into a very small and narrow box, but let’s give space to develop, to go far beyond where they are.  Let’s see anyone we bring into our organization as having limitless potential for where they can go. We want to acquire people we believe in who have the capability to learn, adapt, and deal with new skills and capabilities. It’s broadening the definition of talent and expecting everyone to grow way beyond where they are today—with a future focus.
Recruiting Daily Advisor:  What role does the digital skill lag of HR professionals have to play in all of this?
Canwell: One of the things we were saying is that there is a kind of new set of skills and capabilities that are required for this kind of digital age. Leadership is much more focused on 360-degree digital.
HR has the lowest level of maturity in these new digital skills, with business ahead of HR.  One of the challenges for HR is that it’s often on the front end working with the business to bring people in with skills and help coach and develop those future-focused skills to life for the organization. If HR has little or poor capability in these spaces, it cannot succeed in aiding those that have these skills and capabilities. HR is too far behind to be a partner and advisor to the business.
Recruiting Daily Advisor: What is something that most people don’t know about finding good leaders?
Canwell: The crucial arena of learning for leaders is failing. If you’re a leader who hasn’t experienced failure to some significant degree that has challenged who you are, your assumptions about yourself will prevent you from being the effective leader you could or should be. Failure is absolutely critical from a learning perspective, and from a definition of you are as an individual. If you haven’t had the shock of failure to require you to look at who you are, what you stand for, and what you believe in, you haven’t learned as much as you need to succeed in the future. Yet, most organizations don’t create an environment where failure can genuinely be learned from. Most organizations still have an environment where failure is failure, and it’s a bad thing, not that failure is something that happens to all of us and that we need to learn from.
There is still this belief that we must find the perfect person who is an exact match for the role we are hiring for, rather than seeking someone who has the capacity to grow into this role and realizing he or she is not going to be perfect. It’s not about picking the perfect person now for this role; it’s about picking the person who has the capacity to grow into this role. We need to choose the gap not choose the fit.
On a rational level, we can all respect failure as an element of learning, and yet most organizations tend to be punitive about it. So, we find that people who fail are forced to leave that organization, but they bring all that learning to their next job and are much more effective.
Recruiting Daily Advisor: What is something that you wish everyone knew about finding good leaders?
Canwell: An interesting research project in WWII (60–70 years ago) found that the worst person to identify a good future leader is the direct boss of people. We tend to have a poor perception of the actual performance and impact and don’t know the way they develop others. Partly, we’re biased to choose people who look like us. And partly, we’re seduced by people who talk up to power and seduce us into believing in them. There’s a real fault line with hierarchy choosing the next layer down of leaders to come up through. The WWII research project showed that the worst person to choose the best pilot is the squadron commander. The best people were the ground crew who observed pilots getting ready during the test flight. The layer beneath often has the best perspective on who the best leaders and effective operators actually are. Yet, it’s the layer above that makes the decision. Rarely, do we engage people beneath the leadership level to suggest whom we should promote.
It’s often not the noisiest, most confident, self-advocates who are the best leaders. Often, the people who generally care about their people, who go out of their way to create a positive environment, who spend a lot of time with their own people helping them to develop and to build new skills and capabilities. Sometimes, we don’t know how good they are until they leave and are not there anymore. Instead, self-confidence and self-advocacy tend to get promoted through the ranks.
Recruiting Daily Advisor:  Do you have any additional comments?
Canwell: We are in a fast moving, more complex, more difficult, more dangerous world that we’ve ever lived in before. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the past 20 years where effective leadership of all institutions has been more important to build the society we really want.
Adam L. Canwell is a Partner, People Advisory Services, Ernst & Young and a global leader of EY’s leadership offering based in Melbourne, Australia. He has more than 20 years’ experience in providing people advisory services to clients. He has delivered transformation programs across multiple product and service industries – working with FTSE 100 (or their equivalent) organizations. Adam has an MSc in coaching and consulting for change from HEC at Oxford University and an M.A. (Oxon) Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *