Are You Limiting Your Top Talent By Being Too Vanilla

Happy “Almost” Fall!  As we round the corner into fourth quarter you likely will find yourself pushing to get some of the things you hoped to accomplish done before the holidays hit.  For some clients here at Steople this includes succession planning. A few weeks ago I was working with an executive team in LA to help them put together their plan for their up and coming leaders.

The succession planning process, in some ways, makes individuals look at their own “corporate mortality” – how long do they hope to contribute and how far away is that next person from being able to take the reins?  And in the meantime, what is the plan for the dreaded “getting hit by a bus” scenario if something catastrophic happens.  Being able to plan for your “next”  provides clarity around expectations and provides a career map to everyone in the company.  This is an absolute competitive advantage in our fast paced marketplace.

Leadership Competencies That Have Some Teeth
Teamwork, Integrity, Communication . . . a few popular leadership terms, but what do these words really mean?

For many companies these generic leadership words that once-upon-a-time were placed on the annual performance review with the best intentions of measuring success. But, when we dig into what those words really mean—and how leaders are held accountable to them—what we often find is a lack of clarity.

These words are like vanilla ice cream: easy to like, easy to consume, but not all that groundbreaking. Using super generic words that don’t connect to measured outcomes is an outdated and ineffective approach to developing leaders. Vague terms are unhelpful for leaders in this increasingly changing work environment and don’t provide any roadmap for how to succeed.

Why is it important to give high potentials clear guidance by providing what we call competencies? Two reasons:

  1. Competencies are observable and measurable behaviors that guide people’s success in their roles.
  2. Competencies provide guidance that current leaders can use daily, and aspiring leaders can use to guide growth.

A Practical, Fun and Inclusive Way To Do Competency Work
When I worked with the executive team I referenced earlier, the first order of business was to do some competency work that would lead to increased, pointed conversations about what was expected for each individual in the organization.  The goal was to pull wisdom from the current leaders’ minds and capture and transfer it into the company in a meaningful way.  My charge was to give them tools and guidance to articulate the behaviors and attributes their top leadership needed to keep up with the rapid pace of change in their industry. It was important that the leaders were all using the same definition of success to effectively recruit, develop, and promote leaders.  Since I often get asked “What exactly do you do?”  I thought it might be helpful to give you, our readers, some insight into how I work with teams and also provide a practical exercise for your team to utilize.

How Did We Do It?
We invited leaders from each of the business units (altogether around 24 people) to gather and participate in a one day meeting. We started the day by explaining the why behind the meeting, which was a key to the success of the meeting.  As we know, time is precious to individuals in high profile positions and you have to provide the case as to what is in it for them if they are able to successfully navigate this process.

Following the why conversation, and making the case for succession planning, we asked the team members to answer several open-ended questions about the current and future challenges for their leadership level in the organization. Questions such as:

  • What is the difference between skillsets and competencies?
  • How do you drive or support the strategy of the organization?
  • What are the expectations and deliverables of your level? 

This exercise was a stretch for this set of leaders, as they often thought about their jobs in role- or area-specific terms, and we were asking them to think about their roles by level. The questions and tabletop conversations created a mental framework for these professionals and a level of comfort in the group of peers.

Competency Card Sort
Next, we moved into the main exercise of the meeting, which was a competency card sort. For those not familiar with the card-sorting method, it’s a fun, hands-on, and challenging exercise. In the card-sorting exercise, participants were given a deck of 38 glossy cards with competencies printed on them, for example: Business Acumen, Ensures Accountability, Action Oriented, and Manages Ambiguity. For this group we used the Korn Ferry Leadership Architect™ tools and methodology.

The cards had general definitions of the competencies as well as examples of skilled and unskilled behavioral indicators to help clarify the concept for the participants. Every team member had their own deck of cards and was asked to put each of the 36 competencies in one of three piles: Essential, Nice to Have, Less Important. We limited the number of cards that could be put in each pile—a method called “forced choice” that always tends to frustrate participants because they see so many relevant competencies that cannot be chosen.

After the participants created the three piles, we asked them to remove their middle “Nice to Have” pile. Next, each participant boarded on an easel sheet what 4-5 competencies they felt were appropriate for their level.  The participants were then asked to present them to a group of peers in the room and have a great ideological debate around what others thought.  Each participant then adjusted their competencies based on the feedback.

Finally, we worked on the core competencies that everyone in the company needed to be measured by using the same competency deck with the same card sort method.  By this time in the day, there was a lot of fun and banter with this group who then utilized colored dot stickers to vote on which competencies they felt were appropriate for everyone from the frontline to the C-Suite. The stickers provided a nice group visual for participants and wonderful data for those of us who ended up aggregating the numbers across all groups and every level.  

In The End…
It became very evident which 4-6 competencies stood out as being “The Ones” that needed to be vetted for each level and agreed to by the CEO.  The conversation that ensued about using the competencies during interviewing and then being able to drive coaching and training efforts was invaluable.  In the end, the team was excited to have accomplished a task that was extremely applicable to their everyday interactions with their staff.  This team was extremely eager to continue the next steps in the process…

Hope this was helpful in your thinking about succession planning.  If you want to know what we did with this team to continue the work – email me and let me know.  I may let you in on a few more behind-the-scenes tips and tricks!