Hire Potential

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Partnering with a great hiring manager is an executive search consultant’s dream. I’ve been fortunate to work with outstanding leaders over the last few months, and in all three projects I placed candidates who will be growing into their new roles. They were all hired for their potential, a successful strategy and approach to talent acquisition and management.

Nearing the end of a search for a VP Product Management role reporting to the Chief Experience Officer of a technology-driven financial services company, the hiring manager received some pushback regarding a leading candidate’s lack of “leadership experience,” as this VP will be tasked with building and growing a new team. I emailed my client to ask if he was, likewise, concerned. I received this response:

You are never going to find someone with 15 years of large-scale leadership experience and the energy to drive the product vision and strategy at pace we want. The good news is the leadership part is reachable if you have the right attitude and create the right environment. The environment part is on me. This is an advantage of stewardship, which people just don’t get. Hire the smartest person you can find, empower them and steward their growth areas. It is not a concept most understand or trust. It requires a very fundamental trust and belief in your team.

I was inspired reading his email, given my training and practice in an improvisational approach to human development. Attention to the environment, empowerment and stewarding growth is so incredibly critical and so often ignored. It reminded me of an important statement about education by one of my mentors, Dr. Fred Newman, the Stanford-trained philosopher and co-founder of the East Side Institute, where I am a faculty member:

The issue is to recognize that who we all are is not simply our potential, which is somehow thought of in popular language as ‘inside us.’  But who we are is some complex combination of who we are and what we are becoming.  We’re not static individuals.  We are continuously changing, and we are continuously growing… This is philosophical, and it’s also the understanding of some of the most frontline 20th, 21st century critical thinkers about how to understand human growth and development.

I was also reminded of a favorite quote from Viola Spolin, an important innovator in 20th century American theater and creator of theatre games, “The heart of improvisation is transformation.”

Looking at these 5 Practices for Transformational Leaders*,I imagine these as best practices for improvisers as well as business leaders:

  1. Pause to move faster.
  2. Embrace your ignorance.
  3. Radically reframe the questions.
  4. Set direction, not destination.
  5. Test your solutions, and yourself.

(* Excerpted from “Leading with inner agility,” by San Bourton, Johanne Lavoie, and Tiffany Vogel, McKinsey Quarterly, March 2018, that appeared in Executive Talent, the Global Magazine from the Association of Executive Search Consultants article, Transformational Leadership: The Other Side of Disruption)

Happily, and not surprisingly, these are some of the new approaches for hiring in the 21stcentury. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Hire Leaders for What they Can Do. Not for What They Have Done, authors Josh Bersin and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic sum up their approach to hiring for potential:

In today’s ever-changing world, businesses are expected to grow as fast as the technologies surrounding them. Their models must be in constant transformation. What worked in the past and what is working in the present may not work at all in the future. Companies, then, need to get more comfortable thinking outside the box. This means taking “misfits” or “people who think differently” and placing them into leadership roles. Give them support and time to prove themselves. This is just one way to deepen your leadership pipeline.

You should also take an extra look at the people who “may not be ready,” and analyze them on the basis of their ambition, reputation, and passion for your business. Often the youngest, most agile, and most confident people turn into incredible leaders, even though their track record may not be the best.

It’s time to rethink the notion of leadership. If you move beyond promoting those with the most competence and start thinking more about those who can get you where you want to go, your company will thrive. In other words, start considering those who have high potential, not just top performers.

In the language of improvisation, I give this a hearty “yes, and …” !

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