In all organisations there is an important distinction between management and leadership. A fundamental requirement of the talent management function is to support the transition between management and leadership, developing a pipeline of individuals who can successfully step-up into leadership roles. Despite this simple premise we know that many talent pipelines fail to reflect the skills and habits required of leaders.
How do we know that talent management isn’t working? I have worked with many high performing organisations throughout my career, assessing and benchmarking talent at the cusp of transitioning from senior management to leadership positions. Time and again, a clear theme emerges from our evaluations. Key talent pools – individuals who are nominated as being both high performing and high potential – show a retrospective pattern of strengths. That is, their strengths reflect their careers and their experiences to date. They excel in the skills that have been necessary to get them where they are – the skills that are required of highly capable managers.
In contrast, talented individuals with a prospective patterns of strengths have developed the skills and habits that are required at the next level of progression – leadership. However, this group are a vanishingly small cohort in almost all talent programmes I have experienced. This isn’t an intuitive judgement; it’s a finding that comes from data across all of our talent assessments involving hundreds of large national and multi-national organisations.
Why is this happening? We have to remind ourselves how people acquire skills over time. Exposure and practice are two key drivers. Morgan McCall and colleagues suggested that 70% of learning is shaped primarily by on the job experiences, 20% by development relationships such as coaches and mentors, and 10% by formal training. Exposure, therefore is critical. People have the greatest opportunity to improve when they experience certain tasks and challenges on a regular basis.
Building on this, we know that practice is a critical competent in learning. Anders Ericsson has conducted many studies of expert performance and his work has popularised the notion of 10,000 hours of practice being a requirement for expert performance . Specifically, he found that expertise in almost any domain needs to be developed over time – even ‘prodigies’ like Mozart acquired their skills through many years of hard work and experience, leading to Ericsson’s conclusion that “there are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in ‘deliberate’ practice— practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort”.
Returning to senior managers who have been identified as top talent in their organisations, it’s unsurprising that they demonstrate a retrospective pattern of strengths. Over 15 to 20 years they have gained a great deal of experience as individual contributors and managers. They have assiduously applied themselves – and the ‘70%’, that is their day-to-day roles, – has shaped them accordingly.
Understanding this, talent managers can add value through three key activities. Firstly, by understanding the leadership requirements in their organisation and what it is that separates great managers from great leaders. Secondly, by focusing senior management development on those skills that are both important for leadership and that are not naturally developed in people’s careers to that point. In other words, there needs to be a focus on the development of the skills that the 70% doesn’t naturally address. Thirdly, this needs to be done selectively, with a small population of senior managers who have the strongest potential to progress into leadership roles. This is important because developing leadership skills ahead of time requires work across all three categories that McCall and colleagues identifies – the 70%, 20% and 10% – and this in only feasible with small numbers of individuals.
In my experience, talent management professionals focus mainly on the 20% and the 10% – the coaching, mentoring, and learning support that can be provided to support development. Whilst this is important, it misses the biggest driver of development – on the job experience. The opportunity for talent managers is to form a collaborative alliance with key talent and their line managers to examine the 70%. The concept of role crafting is useful here. Role crafting recognises that many jobs, especially senior level roles, can be adapted or ‘crafted’, to fit certain requirements. This is best achieved through the role holders and their line managers having a common objective in mind. For example, what stretch assignments can the individual be given? What forums, working parties, or papers can they contribute to? Is there a short-term secondment that is suitable? Line managers are often the gate keepers for these opportunities and, provided these activities are aligned to wider objectives and appropriate support is in place, they are important drivers of leadership development.
The third key activity I described was being selective in choosing talent to work with. This comes from my experience that senior managers are responsible for delivering many core business-as-usual activities, and organisations simply cannot accept role crafting for a broad range of people who are responsible for key aspects of operational delivery. The risks are simply too high and the activity too disruptive. However, with a smaller number of high potential individuals, the opportunities often exist.
Finally, senior management development works best when line managers have both the ability and the incentive to support their high potentials. Talent management can play a role by ensuring that key line managers – who are often at Director and Executive level for these populations – have the coaching skills to support their best talent as they work on stretch leadership assignments within the 70%, as well as the willingness to give stretch opportunities.