Identifying High-Potential Leaders for an Uncertain Future
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The attainment of strategic intent ultimately depends on robust execution, which in turn is largely influenced by an organisation’s ability to access a sustainable supply of the best possible leaders both now and in the future. Confronted by continued economic pressure, increasingly competitive markets, and escalating stakeholder scrutiny of their leadership bench-strength, a growing number of organisations are realising that their future success will be severely compromised without the requisite leadership capability and capacity.
Yet, despite this widespread acknowledgement, a significant number of business and HR executives believe that their organisations’ efforts to produce a future supply of talented leaders are failing to deliver the desired outcomes. It is becoming abundantly clear that traditional meth¬ods used to select and develop talent have not kept pace with the changing requirements for effective leadership, and are thus failing to deliver on expectations. Not surprisingly, a growing crisis of confidence in the sustainability of current organisational leadership practices has recently emerged.
In response to this challenge, talent savvy organisations are moving to a more proactive, strategically aligned approach to leadership development and succession, where decisions are becoming more objective and evidence-based with a strong emphasis on future-focused success criteria at all leadership levels. This represents a distinct departure from the more informal or “intuitive” nature of many talent decisions of the past.
Actively seeking Future Leaders
A fundamental component in this approach involves identifying the leadership talent that already exists within the organisation, in particular those individuals who have the potential for long-term future performance in roles beyond the next designated position in their career path. There is a growing emphasis on identifying these individuals earlier on in their careers given that the magnitude of this challenge has increased exponentially more recently given the pace at which the world is changing.
The careers of many of today’s leaders have spanned periods of relative stability and predictability, and both the criteria and methods used to select, develop and promote them have reflected this reality. The consequence of this is that they are not suitably equipped to deal with the challenges of leading in a deeply disrupted context such as that which is being experienced right now.
It is a widely accepted principle that to remain relevant, leadership has to constantly adapt to, and align with, the prevailing context. By extension therefore, if the world is changing at an unprecedented pace, then the definition of what constitutes effective leadership has to change accordingly. In essence, the type of leadership required, and how it is defined, must reflect both the context in which it currently operates as well as anticipated future contexts that may emerge.
Leading in a VUCA world
The rate of change we are experiencing today is unprecedented, and differs significantly from that encountered in the past. It is occurring at a faster pace, lasting longer, and its impact is globally pervasive, causing broader and deeper disruption. The so-called VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex & Ambiguous – environment is profoundly changing not only how organisations do business, but also how business leaders lead. The skills and abilities leaders once needed to help their organisations thrive are no longer sufficient.
In the past, when markets were more predictable and organisational structures and roles were stable, it made sense to assess candidates for high-potential leadership programmes based on their performance track record and measure them against current known criteria for leadership success. However, in an operating context where disruption has become the norm, where strategies are rendered obsolete with increasing frequency, and future leadership positions may not yet exist, such an approach is no longer valid. Instead, it has become essential to understand an individual’s potential to handle the rap¬idly changing and often volatile nature of today’s business environment, and their capability to grow into increasingly expansive, complex and unknown leadership roles. This constitutes a daunting challenge, but is one that has to be mastered in order to provide the assurance of a sustainable supply of future-ready leaders.
Notwithstanding the benefits to be derived from a more robust approach to identifying long-term leadership potential, it must be borne in mind that the analysis of potential constitutes a single, albeit keystone, element in an integrated leadership succession planning and management value chain. Executed effectively, it will serve as the basis for a holistic, individualised leadership development experience focussed on personal and professional learning and growth opportunities that are aligned with current and anticipated strategic priorities.