Rising Star Award: High five fight it out

It's judgment day as the rigorous elimination rounds of the DDI Rising Star Award 2006 (in association with MT) have whittled down the contenders to a handful of high-quality business leaders-in-the-making. The finalists are summoned to the HQ of organiser Development Dimensions International for a testing day of role-playing sessions that will enable a panel of assessors to pick their winner. Alexander Garrett reports...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

8.25: The five finalists - Jeannie Arthur, Alison Barnes, Gareth Mills, Richard Nimmo and James Smith - have arrived at the Buckinghamshire HQ of Development Dimen- sions International (DDI) and wait apprehensively in the lobby. The assessors limber up in a room nearby. Fortunately, none of them looks as belligerent as Alan Sugar.

8.30: Roll call. In DDI's boardroom, lead assessor Mary-Rose Lines gives the welcoming address. 'Congratulations on getting this far. We had twice the submissions we received last year and it's been a rigorous pro- cess,' she says. 'From now on, each of you is Kelly Myers, vice-president of Global Solutions Inc, and head of a key division in the organisation. You'll be undertaking a series of tasks designed to demonstrate your skills and competencies.'

In the role model exercise they're about to undertake, Kelly Myers has come in for just a day before starting his/her new job properly, and finds that urgent business needs attending to. Lines adds some top tips: 'Be yourself: don't try to second-guess what we are looking for. And manage your time.'

8.50: The candidates are led to their offices and get a quick tour of the IT on their laptops. It's time to get stuck into e-mails, preparing for meetings and writing a business plan for Global Solutions, the business unit they're now in charge of.

10.15: First challenge: Marty Kane, a director from North America, is rebelling against a sales reorganisation and has been summoned in. Arthur is straight into the part. 'At this stage, we can't change the decision - you're going to have to make it work,' she tells him. Nimmo, playing the same role in his office next door, is concerned. 'I think this is going to be impossible to solve in a 15-minute meeting,' he says. 'Can you put your concerns in writing, with an alternative operations view of what we can do to fix it?' Mills, meanwhile, is taking a different tack. 'I recognise there's a conflict here,' he says, 'and I want to give you my commitment to do my best to resolve that.'

10.45: An important and angry customer, Danny Cole of American Welcome Hotels, is on the phone. The Jeeves valet robot supplied by Global Solutions has gone badly wrong and a mega-order is in jeopardy. 'Hi, how are you!' Smith greets him, but the response soon takes the wind out of his sails.

'Really?... really?' he says as the litany of woes is conveyed to him. He tries mollification - '...do what we can to minimise the situation... valued client of ours... spoken to R&D...' - before offering to replace the offending robots with an earlier version.

Barnes is determinedly upbeat: 'We'll definitely have a solution for you,' she promises, 'though I can't say yet what it will be. I'll give you a new dedicated client relationship manager... We want to make sure your convention is a huge success.'

And Mills is putting his own cred on the line again: 'I've been put into this post to specifically resolve the problems we've been having, so I personally assure you that we'll fix things for you, Danny.' The call ended, he strides to his flip chart and gives his verdict out loud: 'Products to market early; conflict internally; browned-off customers.'

12.00: Ronnie Hightower, head of a Japanese customer Oceana, is next on the line. Kelly Myers' task is to persuade him (or her - all the characters are unisex) that rather than take a licence for Global Solutions' robots, the two companies should form a joint venture. 'We wondered if there was a bigger way we could pursue this,' says Arthur. 'One of the benefits of forming a partnership is that you'd have access to our R&D facilities...'

Smith proposes a 'strategic alliance' and gives Ronnie a moment to digest the concept. It evidently doesn't hit the mark. 'Er, why do you say "strike terror"?' he asks.

12.30: A quick break for lunch, and the finalists step out of their roles briefly. DDI's marketing director Lucy McGee joins the group. In the second year of the awards, entries have doubled, she says, and this year's finalists are 'of particularly high calibre'.

DDI's executive assessment programme is designed to identify those with the potential for big leadership jobs. 'It's a real combination of skills.

Can they coach, take people with them through change, be an ambassador for the organisation, rescue a relation- ship with a strategic customer?

But across the day, what emerges is much more holistic. Do their values underpin their decisions, and how does pressure affect their judgment?'

Once the assessment has been discussed with the individual, 'the real challenge is for people to develop more rapidly beyond a certain level, and that takes place within an organisation largely by doing. You have to pick the assignments an individual will benefit from and explain it to them.'

2.15: Back at Global Solutions, it's time for a media interview. Kelly Myers has to appear live on TV with Kirsty Karson of WINN's 120 Minutes programme. A Global security guard robot has been involved in an incident where a child died, and questions are asked about why Global has not signed up to the Principles of Responsible Robotics.

Viewed on the CCTV screens, the finalists betray varying levels of apprehension as they face the camera. Nimmo takes the first question from Karson: 'So your robots kill?' Ice cool, he responds: 'Our robot didn't kill anybody, it was involved in a terrible accident. But first I'd like to stress how sorry we are, and to send our condolences to the family...'

Barnes is looking flustered, falling back on 'I'm not fully briefed at this point, and don't want to comment', earning the rebuke from Karson: 'That sounds like a cop-out.'

Smith puts Global's case in robust fashion, but Mills looks ill-at-ease in front of the camera. Nimmo has done well here. Lines confides: 'He struck a nice balance between showing empathy and not accepting responsibility.

And not everyone would be able to have taken one of the Principles of Responsible Robotics and discussed it in such detail.'

3.00: The candidates have to make a voice recording of their vision for Global Solutions. Barnes starts hers in upbeat mode: 'I want to put talent at the heart of my vision, to hire the best people, develop the best people and retain the best people.' While the others are fiddling with their recorders, she reiterates her message: 'My three priorities for this business are talent, talent and talent.'

Smith has a different take: 'I want to see Global Solutions re-establishing itself as the out-and-out global leader in the robotics market. That will only happen if we get the best out of every individual every day.'

5.15: The wannabes reach a key moment: they have to present their analysis of Global Solutions' position to CEO Terry Turner, with a business plan for the next three years.

Nimmo starts by identifying PR as a key issue and then comes out with a clear strategy: 'I think we need to differentiate ourselves from our competitors by being the strongest on CSR, taking a moral standpoint.' Next door, Mills tears the balance sheet to shreds, suggesting the Precision division be sold. Barnes' verdict? 'We're playing too much me-too; we need to be ahead of the curve.'

5.45: The Rising Stars are allowed to take off their Kelly Myers hat to discuss their responses to the challenges during the day.

6.30: It's a wrap. Looking pretty frazzled after their 10-hour day, they get their final de-brief and head back to their normal lives. The assessors still have to evaluate and score the tapes from each activity, which will be discussed and eventually lead to ratings and reports for each candidate.

ALISON BARNES - THE RISING STAR 2006

'She was impressive by any standards and gave an exceptionally sound business analysis presentation, showing both depth and breadth across a range of functional areas,' says DDI's Lucy McGee. 'Alison is very results-driven, shows good organisational and commercial awareness, and is very hungry to learn and develop herself. She also scored highly on "executive disposition", which is about adjusting your style to suit the audience you're dealing with, personal impact and being a good advocate for the organisation.'

The prize As well as getting the same written feedback as the other finalists on the Rising Star assessment day, Barnes will receive full coaching sessions with a DDI executive coach for six months. With her already proven skills due to be enhanced, her star is set to rise.

Biography Barnes, 36, is a business director for Barclays Investment Services, where she has risen swiftly through the ranks since joining in 1998. Before that, she worked at two law firms, Simmons & Simmons and Clifford Chance. She's particularly proud to be one of the top 10 females in a business employing 7,000 and says she consciously works at being a role model and mentor for other women. She was in two minds when a colleague suggested she enter the awards, but the clincher was that 'I believe passionately that continuous improvement and self-awareness are essential for any leader'. For Barnes, leadership is all about developing other people. At the same time, she admires people who challenge conventional notions of leadership - she cites Gandhi and Richard Branson as examples. To unwind, Barnes enjoys tennis and a form of jive and salsa dancing called Ceroc. Her biggest passion, though, is working as trustee for a hospice. 'I was surprised to find there were things that I could contribute; it's been very humbling.'

A PIPELINE OF TALENT

DDI's assessments are usually used to help organisations determine readiness for more senior leadership roles, because they provide objective and reliable data on individuals' capabilities. Typically, companies will have already applied some criteria to screen for leadership potential before this stage. Assessment can also support selection decisions for external recruitment.

'We see these awards as a way of educating line managers about the importance of identifying their high-potential people - and accelerating their development - as early as possible,' says DDI's Lucy McGee. 'Every company we talk to complains of a shortage of leadership talent, yet there's a very straightforward process to ensure a pipeline of talent to meet future leadership needs.'

It's all part of taking a more strategic approach to talent management. Many of DDI's clients have an annual people review process, including a yearly cycle of leadership development. This begins with understanding what an organisation needs its leaders to excel at to meet its business challenges. This profile of skills, motivations, experience, knowledge and personal attributes becomes the target against which individuals deemed to have greatest potential are assessed.

DDI's assessors record everything on tape or video. They look for evidence of the specific behaviours the leader profile requires, and then compare their own evaluations with those of other assessors before agreeing a rating against each skill. 'The process is really one of diagnosis, because it reveals exactly where a person sits now in relation to the optimal leader profile for your organisation, and what gaps need addressing before they are ready to step up a level,' explains McGee. 'But it's also a kind of insurance policy: you want promotion to hold only minimal risk - both to their own careers and to the company's fortunes.'

Assessment provides a targeted shortlist of development priorities for the candidate that range from job experience, coaching and special projects to formal training.

THE FINALISTS

THE RUNNER-UP - Jeannie Arthur 'Her strengths include a very good strategic analysis and using data to develop alternative strategies. She sets ambitious but realistic targets and has a positive and engaging communication style.'

BIOGRAPHY - Aged 29, Arthur has a first-class Masters degree in Civil Engineering and is chief operations officer for Freshminds, an innovative recruitment and research company. She cites her biggest achievement as setting up the company's operations team, enabling other staff to focus on their individual roles. Leadership, she says 'is about making a decision and that having an impact on the people around you. It's also about being able to take people with you.' She believes that she has demonstrated her ability to add value, and the next challenge is 'how I coach, manage and lead people'. Outside work, she's into riding, snowboarding and other sports and training for a triathlon. Her work/life balance isn't great, though. 'I like being at work; I couldn't do a nine-to-five job - I think about work all the time.'

GARETH MILLS - Mills left school at 16 to become an apprentice and has come a long way since then. Now 41, he's project manager with MWH, a consultancy specialising in nuclear decommissioning services. Previously, he was a lead engineer at BNFL. Mills is used to big responsibilities - he project-managed the £60 million extension of Liverpool's Wastewater Treatment Works, involving up to 250 people, with 150,00 hours worked and no lost time in accidents.

And he's keen to understand latest management thinking, with a collection of more than 50 books on leadership and development. Passionate about engineering, Mills cites Brunel as a great role model, and says the aspect of leadership that appeals most is 'about breaking new ground and using my skills to make things happen'.

With three children, there's little free time on his hands, but he's recently started mentoring ex-offenders for the National Probation Service. 'It's taught me one thing at least: that everybody's got potential.

JAMES SMITH - A senior business manager with recruitment consultancy MSB International, Smith, 31, was running its main sales division with a £35 million-plus turnover by the age of 30. He is proud of having kept his team together and helped it to flourish during a period of reorganisation, and is a strong advocate of empowerment and motivational techniques. Leadership, he says, 'is about having an impact, influencing situations - having a say rather than just having to toe the line'. He admires Richard Branson and Philip Green, among business leaders - 'they've both done well through tenacity, through taking a few risks and not being afraid to make mistakes'. In his spare time, Smith is into golf, tennis and running, as well as supporting Norwich City. But he admits: 'In the industry I'm in, the hours are demanding. It's sometimes a struggle to relax.'

RICHARD NIMMO - Alone among the five, 34-year-old Nimmo works for a non-profit organisation, the marine conservation group Blue Ventures, where he is general manager. In 2004, his passion for scuba diving led him to give up a successful career in commercial radio and volunteer for a Blue Ventures project in Madagascar, where he subsequently became field manager. There he discovered that the organisation's core work - monitoring the effects of climate change and population growth on corals and fish stocks - was inextricably linked with the livelihood of the local people. 'It's impossible to work with 1,200 people living on less than $1 a day without caring about them,' says Nimmo. Having downsized his lifestyle to meet his new earnings, he is totally committed to Blue Ventures' work and sees the awards as a way to learn and pit himself against the assessment system. He's still keen on diving (overseas), supports Arsenal, and has tried his hand at boxing.

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