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Appraising the boss – the hardest job of all?

John Telfer , 14 Feb 2013

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Measuring and managing the development of leaders is one of HR’s most ambitious and challenging roles. While leaders exist at many levels within an organisation, being able to shape those people at the helm in particular requires the HR director to have real strength of character. It also requires good evidence of leaders’ behaviour and the impact that this is having on the bottom line, or other performance indicators.

It could be that HR's role in appraising the boss is one of the toughest jobs of all. But what HR must remember is that those at the top may well be devoid of feedback, feel isolated and be patently aware of their shortcomings. Chances are, many are crying out for someone to tell them where and how they should develop.

In most cases leaders are a mixed bag of skills and origins. Most leaders are not born or trained to lead, but simply end up there because they were good at a job and stood out.

Our evidence actually suggests that many British leaders have room for behavioural improvement. Often, however, HR does not have the means at its disposal to quantify what these behaviours are and how they should change. We're not simply talking about whether the boss gets drunk at the company party. By behaviours we mean what traits define what type of leader he or she is and how that might impact on what the workers do or think. Moreover, we're referring to whether improving or adapting behaviour will actually improve the business's performance.

Recent research we conducted into British workers' attitudes to their leaders showed that on average they lagged 15% behind the good practice scale we use when advising and measuring our clients. I think this worker attitude view is critical, because the impact that leaders can have on managing an organisation's talent can be extreme, both negatively and positively.

In fact, I believe that many British organisations are facing a talent timebomb, fuelled by the state of the economy and exacerbated by issues with leadership. In the current economy employees are more likely to sit tight in their jobs for security, but the impact of absenteeism and presenteeism in terms of productivity and employment costs often goes unmeasured, sometimes unnoticed. As the economy improves, organisations will see an exodus of good workers who, feeling dissatisfied and disengaged, will seek a better work life elsewhere. Addressing and working on leader behaviours is an action that can be taken now to improve worker engagement and retention of the best people when they are likely to think of leaving.

So, what can organisations expect to achieve in terms of measurable benefit from investing in leadership behaviour analysis and development? After all, those at the top will want to know how it is (or how they are) going to deliver ROI. Globally, organisations that have successfully measured and managed leader behaviour have on average been able to record a direct improvement in profit of around 5%. The returns are certainly significant in appraising the boss's behaviour – and it is HR people who hold the key.

John Telfer (pictured), managing director at management consultancy firm Inspiring Business Performance

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