We’re systematically promoting the wrong people… and it’s got to stop

You can identify potential leaders through these five behaviours.

by Kevin Green
Last Updated: 13 Mar 2020

Businesses consistently underestimate the impact of people leadership on business success when hiring or promoting to management roles.

The need for good people leadership has never been more apparent; large parts of industry are being disrupted by technology and by more nimble competitors. We know that 85 per cent of economic value is derived from intangibles such as brand, relationships, intellectual property and patents - at the heart of all these are people and their ability to innovate and build relationships.

Talent is the driver of competitive advantage in most if not all markets. Yet the ability to inspire, motivate and engage people is still often ignored in preference for technical expertise, experience in a similar role or even long service.

We have an accidental approach to selecting leaders where an interview is still the predominant tool used and yet we’ve known for 40 years that a one-on-one interview is only marginally better at predicting job performance than random selection.

The second driver is leadership development. It is still based on a preordained and, let’s be honest, old-fashioned view of what ‘good’ looks like. We try to teach soft skills as if they are knowledge based with checklists and reading. Difficult conversations are at the heart of great leadership yet how often does practising those appear on leadership development programmes?

We have to ask why our leaders all look the same: predominately white older middle-class men. It’s often down to looking for people who are similar to those that have done well in leadership roles before. We know we want leaders who can engage a multi-generational workforce with differing attitudes and motivators - managing people is always the hardest part of leadership. The soft stuff is now the hard stuff.

Our organisations need to welcome constructive dissent and accept that appointing and developing clones won’t enable business to pivot and respond quickly and effectively to customers, competitors and markets that are changing faster than ever before.

Great leaders do five things that create more effective organisations which are great places to work and which bring out the best in their teams. The question is how good are most companies at selecting and developing people who behave this way?

5 things that great leaders do every day


1. They paint pictures

They create a sense of purpose and energy within an organisation. They can create compelling narratives which excite and inspire their teams. In an era when we’re looking to get more from our people, leaders need to show how what each person and team does matters to the business success. This leadership approach is not about’ I know best, follow me and do as I say’. It’s a more engaging ‘this is where we’re heading, how can you best help us get there?’ It involves more questions than instructions.

2. They focus on talent

They know that business is a team game so they develop and hire great people. Great leaders attract other great leaders rather than more followers. Great leaders are people who can put their ego to one side and make a difference. They make succession and performance management central to their journey and they recognise that personal feedback is at the heart of both these processes.

3. They know that teams matter

In many organisations very little time and effort is spent on talking, thinking and creating world class teams. However, it’s widely acknowledged that any task is better performed by a team than an individual, however gifted they are. Leaders that win are those that have the ability to bring together different abilities, mindsets and competencies. This is a core leadership trait.

4. Learning drives innovation and change

One of the most important behaviours of leaders is the promotion and facilitation of learning as a core organisational approach. They look for evidence and data while asking how do we improve this and how do we get better? In periods of disruption, adapting and being agile is critical. Agility and innovation both require the ability to reflect and learn about what works and what doesn’t at speed. A sign of an effective leader is someone who asks people to make mistakes and learn from them - that’s how real progress is made.

5. They are authentic

Leaders that succeed tend to be viewed as real people, not all-conquering heroes who never make a mistake. Showing vulnerability is much underestimated amongst business leaders. People respond to emotion as much as logic and we need leaders who can empathise, be open, communicate and listen.

As businesses require more from their leaders we have to revolutionise how we assess, develop and grow them. What’s worked in the past is no longer fit for purpose. We need to get serious if we want our organisations to ride the waves of disruption and be successful.

Kevin Green is author of Competitive People Strategy: how to attract, develop and retain the staff you need for business success (Kogan Page, £29.99)

Image credit: David M Benett/WireImage via Getty Images

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