It's difficult but necessary to get the best leaders

Getting the best people in leadership jobs continues to be the simplest and most effective way to fix a business

During my years as an HR executive I’ve had to review various local subsidiaries. Some of the lowest-performing market reviews felt painful. The business seemed mired in every sort of complication. Key metrics reviews translated into a sad litany describing every possible business misfortune: shrinking demand, competitive pressure, a bad pricing environment, salesforce turnover… It was hard to understand how circumstances had become so dire in one business unit compared to others.

Then we would change one or two key leaders at the top. Suddenly complexity evaporated, obstacles were lifted and the business would take off.

Peter Drucker described the people-decisions conundrum effectively almost 40 years ago in the Harvard Business Review. ‘No other decisions are so long-lasting in their consequences or so difficult to unmake,’ he wrote. ‘And yet… at most one third of such decisions turn out right… In no other area of management would we put up with such miserable performance.’

Getting the best people in leadership jobs continues to be the simplest and most effective way to fix a business. But while this is essential it’s also extremely difficult to get right.

Part of the challenge is that the numbers are not favourable; there are only a small number of outstanding performers. Assessing candidates is complicated by the uniqueness of leadership jobs, business situations that are fast changing, and psychological bias that can manifest in a number of ways.

One of the most frequent biases is the strong preference most of us have for what feels familiar. Internal promotions are also often guided by the power of loyalty and likeness. The temptation is to hire or promote someone who will ‘always have the boss’ back’.

There are plenty of suggestions out there on how to improve these decisions. But here are three tips from my own experience in the trenches.

Be clear on what to look for. Way too much time gets spent in interviews and talent reviews discussing past results that can be learnt from a CV and validated through references. These results are foundational and essential. However, the newly-appointed senior manager will most often succeed or fail based on leadership, character and potential. You will need to educate your organisation on key leadership factors. There are plenty of good frameworks out there. I like the simplicity of Egon Zehnder’s four criteria model of Curiosity, Insight, Engagement and Determination.

Allocate more time. A credible understanding of the candidate takes time. But management’s obsession with efficiency has transferred to the assessment process. Leaders often ask for interviews with external senior managers to be condensed to 50 minutes, which I don’t think is enough time to get under the skin of such an important decision.

Assessing the candidate’s ability to engage others and their courage and ability to adapt to new circumstances takes time and empathy. It is time exceptionally well spent. If circumstances allow, get creative. An invite for a more relaxed lunch or dinner with the hiring manager can go a long way. A weekend brunch with a good conversation, while at times impractical, can provide additional insights. And a panel of diverse interviewers will offer equally-diverse angles on the candidate’s strengths.

Prioritise social intelligence. As senior leaders are promoted their ability to productively relate to others and influence their organisations will be put to the test. Social intelligence is the interpersonal part of emotional intelligence. While it is rooted in the complex neuroscience of interactions, one could simply say that the stronger you are emotionally the stronger you will be socially. Self-awareness, listening skills, empathy, influence and concern are all extraordinarily important traits.

We all search to build a legacy in our work and lives. In HR, as in business, no legacy is more remarkable than helping to develop the next generation of senior leaders. While improving success rates will always be a challenging task, it is worth our best time and effort.

Giovanni Giordano is former group HR director at BAT, former chief corporate officer (global HR, legal, IT) at Ferrero International, and former HR director, global health and wellbeing at Procter & Gamble