Sustaining and enhancing leadership bench strength is a core responsibility of your senior leadership team.

We are frequently asked the following questions by executives responsible for achieving this. We also realise that you may have a question not covered below and encourage you to contact us directly at info@hipotential.com.au or on 1300 369 455 for a more specific enquiry.


Can leaders be developed or are some people simply better suited to leadership roles than others?

At the heart of this question is the classic ‘nature versus nurture’ argument.  Genetic research suggests that between 40 to 80 per cent of certain personality traits are inherited.  And recent brain research confirms a clear neurological and biological basis for personality.  However, ‘nature’ is only part of the equation.  We also know that many of the beliefs, values and behaviours demonstrated by effective leaders have been acquired through experience.  Hence, ‘nurture’ also has a role to play.  Recent neurobiological research suggests that certain personality traits are critical to our capacity to learn under challenging, complex and ambiguous situations.  Hence, some individuals are more ‘efficient’ at learning from the types of experiences critical to leadership success.  Some earlier studies refer to this as ‘learning agility’.

How effective are training programs in developing high potential leaders?

Leadership training programs are effective for developing front-line to middle manager capabilities but are less effective in developing high potential leaders for the following three reasons:

  • Training programs address knowledge, skills and attitudes across a number of general leadership domains.  This broad-based approach assumes all participants are deficient in the majority of these domains (otherwise why would they attend training?).  This may be the case for inexperienced leaders but rarely for high potential leaders who already posses most of these capabilities (often through self-directed learning and on-the-job experience) and need more targeted learning opportunities.
  • Training programs are a collective approach to learning.  This ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach can be challenging for some, underwhelming for others and somewhere in the middle for most participants.  High potential leaders thrive on challenging learning opportunities and are often under-stimulated by training programs.
  • The work of senior leaders is more ambiguous, complex and challenging than middle managers and front-line leaders.  These conditions are hard to replicate in a training program.  Research shows that successful senior executives learn on-the-job rather than from formal training programs.  Likewise high potential leaders actively pursue real-life work, or non-work, experiences to acquire senior leadership capabilities.

Why should we assess leadership potential?  Doesn’t everyone have the potential to be a leader?

Assessing potential is commonplace outside the workplace.  Universities, for example, set minimum grades for university entrance exams as prerequisites for many programs of study (e.g., medicine).  They do this because the evidence indicates that exam grades are significant predictors of successful performance on certain programs.    Similarly, assessing the potential of your leaders provides you with a significant predictor of their success at more senior executive levels.  Not everyone has the potential to complete a medical degree.  Likewise, not everyone has what it takes to be a successful senior executive.

Can you develop potential?

Yes, if you know what to target.  Targeting knowledge, skills or behaviours does not develop potential.  This is because potential relates to one’s capacity to perform successfully in situations that are complex, ambiguous and challenging.  Learning new knowledge, skills and behaviours will help in stable, predictable and less complex environments but for senior leadership roles you need to focus on developing executive control.  Executive control moderates one’s overriding internal drive or motivation to produce the most appropriate emotional response under challenging conditions.  A stable level of emotional reactivity is essential for making sound, timely decisions and for building and maintaining relationships.  Executive control is best developed using targeted cognitive-behaviour development strategies.

How can you best develop the senior executives of the future?

It’s stating the obvious, but it’s often forgotten – It takes several years to develop high performing senior executives.  The most effective method is to firstly identify those mid-level managers with high potential (i.e., the capacity to learn under pressure).  Secondly, give these high potential managers work that is ambiguous, complex and challenging.  Finally, support their on-the-job learning.

Isn’t current performance a valid predictor of success in more senior roles?

This assertion is commonly misunderstood or misrepresented.  Current performance is a valid predictor of promotion – not effectiveness at more senior levels.  Many studies support the performance – promotion relationship.  In a way it makes logical sense.  The high performers are more likely to get promoted than the average or low performers.  But current performance does not predict future performance.  Particularly in situations where the future role is significantly different to the current one.  For example, if it’s more complex, ambiguous or challenging.  In this case the environment and the success criteria are significantly different and you’re not comparing ‘apples with apples’.  Despite the obvious flaw in such logic, strategic level decision makers still promote leaders based on their current or past performance without accounting for the significantly different role requirements at the higher level.

How does an understanding of neuroscience help improve leadership assessment and development?

Traditional assessment and development approaches rely on models or frameworks that describe leader behaviours or attributes but don’t explain what causes leaders to behave in certain ways.

Some common descriptive models include position descriptions, interview questions, personality instruments and competency frameworks.  For example, a candidate for a leadership role might provide an example of his ‘ability to focus 100 per cent on getting the job done with no errors, mistakes or rework’.  From this you might describe him as goal-oriented, conscientious and detail focused – an ideal operations manager perhaps?

When considering this example from a neurobiological perspective one might be concerned with how his low level of executive control interacts with his high threat motivation under ambiguous or complex situations.  Because under pressure or conflict, this candidate’s low executive control will fail to inhibit his threat motivation which means he is likely to procrastinate, delay taking timely action and damage interpersonal relationships by being overly critical and demanding.  Perhaps a less than ideal operations manager?  If however you chose to select this candidate you know that he would need to strengthen his level of executive control and balance his more pessimistic emotions if he were to be successful in the role long term.

Is external search and selection superior to internal succession?

It depends.  The research suggests that where there are few changes in the external environment and the organisation is performing well then internal succession creates stability and therefore maintains shareholder value.  When the external environment changes considerably or the organisation needs significant renewal then external candidates are generally more successful at implementing major change and creating shareholder value.

Do competency models provide effective measures of executive success?

Most competency (or capability) models describe ideal leadership knowledge and behaviours.  In addition, some frameworks target attributes such as personality traits or values and beliefs.  Competency models are appealing because knowledge and behaviours are directly observable and can therefore be measured via questionnaires or interviews.   However, competency models have two critical limitations:

  • They rarely incorporate outcome measures (e.g., follower loyalty, trust and commitment).  Most competency frameworks simply describe leader behaviours and attributes without explaining how these factors influence executive success.  There is an underlying assumption that all factors are equally predictive of a general measure of executive success.
  • They ignore other factors that are known to predict executive success (e.g., organisation culture, follower capability and role requirements).  There is an underlying assumption that leadership behaviours exist in isolation from environmental factors.  In reality, competency models describe leader behaviours that are restricted to a narrow range of stable and predictable environments.

Effective assessment models incorporate additional factors beyond behaviours that are also known to predict executive success.  By way of example, a leader’s strong adherence to process and discipline in implementing a plan will bode well in a stable well established organisation.  However, such competencies in an organisation experiencing significant change with a disenfranchised work force would fail to elicit new ideas while engaging others in implementing change.

More stable attributes, like personality, in addition to other contingent factors are stronger predictors of leader effectiveness because they provide a better explanation of how a leader is likely to behave across a broader range of situations.  Competency models assume that leader behaviours remain relatively stable when today’s operating environment rarely does.

Are personality questionnaires effective measures of executive success?

A specific personality trait, such as anxiety, may not be apparent in a stable work environment, during an interview or in a self-rated personality report.  However, when dealing with ambiguity, conflict and challenging tasks anxious behaviours (e.g., procrastination) may come to the fore and seriously impact a leader’s effectiveness.

Personality is difficult to measure, however, it is a well established and reliable predictor of behaviour across a wide range of tasks and situations.  The problem is one of measurement because self-report measures of personality, like leadership behaviour measures, are easy to ‘fake good’.  The questions are very transparent and most individuals provide socially desirable responses for fear of negative judgement by others.  This tendency to fake good increases when there is a desirable outcome at stake (e.g., when applying for a new job or promotion).

‘State’ measures of personality (e.g., present feelings of anxiety) are more effective predictors of behaviour that those measuring ‘traits’ (e.g., a general tendency to feel anxious).  Such state measures are harder to fake good and are strong predictors of executive success.

Are leader values and beliefs effective predictors of executive success?

One’s values and beliefs cannot be directly observed in the same way as behaviours.  We can ask someone their values and beliefs and, assuming an honest response, get an indication of these.  The problem, however, is that one’s behaviours may not always align with their espoused values and beliefs.  Particularly when the incentive to ‘fake good’ is high.  Hence, the relationship between what a leader says and does is often unreliable.  Observed behaviour and ‘state’ personality are more valid and reliable predictors of executive success than leader values and beliefs.

How important is intelligence?  Why focus on cognitive efficiency?

Intelligence is generally taken to mean the score one attains on a standardised measure of intelligence (e.g., an IQ test).  ‘Intelligence’ per se is a much broader concept than the tests designed to measure it.  This subtle point is an important one because most practitioners pay more attention to the test score than how a leader solves problems, makes decisions and learns from experience.  Test scores give a relative measure of performance on a standardised intelligence test.  Research shows that the majority of CEO direct reports score above the 95th percentile on such tests.  Test scores therefore are simply a ‘ticket to entry’ for CEO candidates – they don’t differentiate high potential executives from those who are simply high performing.

Measures of cognitive efficiency explain how leaders solve problems, make decisions and learn from experience under complex, ambiguous and challenging situations.  Certain ability tests measure a leader’s capacity to make robust, timely decisions under pressure.  Cognitive efficiency directly influences a leader’s level of emotional reactivity and subsequently their decisions and behaviours.  This impacts their performance including their ability to initiate and maintain effective interpersonal relationships.

Tests of cognitive efficiency cannot be ‘faked good’ in the way that self-report leadership and personality measures can be.  They are also significantly more accurate and reliable than interviews and reference checks where candidates are often described as ‘highly intelligent’ or ‘quick on the uptake’ in the absence of any objective evidence.  Hence, measures of cognitive efficiency differentiate high potential executives from those who are simply high performing in their current role.

Is ‘mapping’ (or aligning) our competency model to another tool such as a personality questionnaire an effective way to measure potential?

Mapping is one way to use an existing model, and the questionnaire describing it, to measure another model, framework or concept (e.g., your competency framework).  While this is common practice it produces inaccurate and unreliable results.  For example, personality questionnaires are often mapped to leadership competency models.  The problem with this practice is that personality is a different concept to leadership behaviours.  Whilst in many cases the former influences the latter – personality questionnaires don’t actually measure leadership behaviours.  Hence, raters are asked to assess a leader’s personality and not their observable behaviours based on your competency model.  And personality is a difficult construct to measure accurately and reliably.

Hence, you should always use a questionnaire designed for the model or framework you’re measuring.  This may sound like common sense, however many providers will try to convince you otherwise.  They say that mapping their questionnaire to your competency framework is as effective as using or designing a set of questions specifically for your model – this is simply not true.

Is promotion a suitable outcome measure?

Promotion is a suitable outcome measure in stable, predictable and profitable organisations where the criteria for promotion are strongly correlated with the criteria for effectiveness of the unit being managed (e.g., unit profit, revenue or turnover).  This measure served us well from the 1950’s until recently.  It is a less useful measure for organisations responding to significant change because the factors driving effectiveness are less controllable and less predictive.  For example, the unexpected exit of a major competitor or loss of a major supplier will have a material impact on profit, revenue or turnover.  Outcome measures that target an executive’s response to uncertainty, setbacks and challenges are far more effective because they provide an indication of effective versus ineffective decision-making and behaviours (e.g., rash, ill-considered decisions versus timely, well considered ones).  Measuring leader effectiveness at the individual, team and organisation level as well as the impact they have on followers provides a better indication of how they typically get results through others.  Promotion simply provides a measure of career progress.

How does this relate to emotional intelligence?

Most models of emotional intelligence refer to emotional self-awareness, decision making and emotional management or control.  In this sense there are many similarities with how executive control moderates optimistic and pessimistic emotions.  Much of the research however has focused on measurement tools and development of emotional intelligence competencies.  There has been less emphasis on theory building and trying to explain the underlying reasons why someone is more or less emotionally intelligent than someone else.  Critics have raised concerns that emotional intelligence is really no different to personality and many questionnaires simply measure established personality constructs (e.g., neuroticism and agreeableness).

Are personality measures accurate predictors of executive success?

The research on personality predicting leadership effectiveness is somewhat mixed.  Many studies report a low correlation (10 to 12 per cent or less) while some a high correlation (over 50 per cent).  Much of this variance has to do with differences in the research methodology (e.g., an over reliance on self-report measures), the type of personality measure used, the outcome measures targeted and other environmental factors.  The general consensus is that personality is a relatively valid and reliable predictor.  However, on its own it does not predict a significantly large proportion of leader effectiveness.  Other factors such as leader behaviours, follower attributes and task demands also contribute to effectiveness outcomes.

How effective are structured interviews for predicting executive success?

A large amount of research supports the substantial influence initial impressions, formed during rapport building, have on an interviewer’s structured evaluations.  Interviewers made quick, intuitive judgments about candidates early in the interview and these initial impressions predict subsequent evaluations in a structured interview.   Interviewers form evaluations of candidates within minutes and these evaluations make a lasting impression.  Hence, those candidates who are extraverted (i.e., talkative, expressive, and enthusiastic) with high verbal skills are more likely to be rated higher than their more introverted colleagues.  For more extraverted candidates, interviewers’ initial impressions reflect the candidate’s self-ratings of capability.  Hence, structured interviews are one of the least valid and reliable methods for predicting executive success – yet are the most common (and often only) method used to assess leadership potential.

Why uses semi-structured versus structured interviews?

Contrary to popular belief, a great body of research shows that structured interviews are no better at predicting performance than unstructured ones.  In addition, interviewers consistently rate extraverted candidates with strong verbal skills more highly than introverted candidates.  Hence, the structured interview is not as objective as we would like to believe and the candidate’s personality is likely to further increase our bias.

However, research also shows that unstructured interviews are more accurate at assessing a candidate’s personality than structured interviews.  That’s why semi-structured interviews provides the best way to:

  • Validate a candidate’s personality and behaviours after they have complete self-report and 360-degree questionnaires.
  • Assess leadership potential using targeted questions relating to performance under complex, ambiguous and challenging situations.

How effective is reference checking for predicting executive success?

Reference checking is as equally unreliable as structured interviews.

How effective are assessment centres for predicting executive success?

There is very little research relating specifically to assessment centres and effectiveness in predicting executive success.  However, assessment centres that are well specified (i.e., assessing relevant attributes) and designed (i.e., using valid and reliable assessment activities) explain somewhere between 24 to 40 per cent of performance in general roles.  The major drawbacks of the assessment centre methodology are:

  • It is resource intense and relies on using trained observers and purpose-built assessment activities for maximum accuracy
  • It is time consuming because its accuracy relies on multiple assessment activities and this often means several days of testing
  • The results have limited generalizability (i.e., you can’t accurately compare results across roles, departments or organisations)
  • Because of all these factors it is one of the most expensive methods

Are self-report measures accurate and reliable?

Self-report measures are susceptible to socially desirable responses and are often inaccurate and unreliable.  This common problem is known as ‘faking good’.

What’s the role of 360-degree questionnaires?  Shouldn’t they only be used for development purposes?

Multi-rater or 360-degree methods are an effective way to mitigate or eliminate the effects of candidates ‘faking good’.  This data collection method allows an interviewer to gather multiple perspectives of a leader’s behaviour and validate this with the leader’s self-perception.  Through the process of giving 360-degree feedback the leader is afforded the opportunity to understand how others see him or her.  When used effectively this information provides a useful input to leadership development planning.

Finally, it is a myth to argue that 360-degree feedback – as a method – is any more or less subjective than other data gathering methods.   Interviews and self-report surveys can be equally subjective if they are poorly designed, implemented and interpreted.

How do you encourage individuals to accept their results when they indicate significant areas for improvement?

In our experience encouraging leaders to ‘accept’ their results can be unrealistic when there are significant areas for improvement.  Also, acceptance is not always a necessary prerequisite to changing ineffective leadership behaviours.  Instead, we focus on helping leaders ‘understand’ their results and most importantly make a decision about what action to take based on their enhanced level of self-awareness.This starts at the beginning of the leadership assessment process where a clear understanding of the background, rationale and outcomes of the process is explained to all participants.  It is further reinforced by a primary focus on career and development as well as assessment, and an ongoing commitment to discretion and confidentiality.  Finally, by encouraging an attitude of enquiry and self-directed interpretation (versus the report as the only ‘source of truth’) we move beyond the data and encourage the leader to make decisions and take action.

How do you measure the effectiveness of a high potential process?

The first measure of an effective high potential process is that senior executives make selection, promotion or deployment decisions based on valid and reliable evidence.  Secondly, over time, those identified as high potential leaders rate significantly higher than their peers on objective measures of performance.

How important are large sample sizes or norms?

The importance or otherwise of a large sample size relates to understanding the difference between correlation and causation.   Correlation does not imply causation.  A common example used to illustrate this is the finding that skirt lengths and share prices are highly correlated.  As share prices go up, skirt lengths get shorter.  In this example there is no real interaction between the factors involved it is simply a coincidence of the data.

Larger sample sizes tend to produce more significant correlations even where there are no real-world explanations for such (as in the example above).  Hence, large sample sizes per se are meaningless in the absence of sound explanations for how certain factors interact.  For example, length of service and management level is often significantly correlated in large organisations (i.e., longer serving employees are more senior level managers).  However, does this mean that the longer you serve the more likely it is that you will be promoted?  This is an unlikely explanation as other factors are more likely to influence promotion.

This is an important issue to be aware of since some solution providers will claim their research, based on large samples, explains a particular relationship when in fact it simply describes correlation.  This is a common feature of survey-based research.  Experimentally designed studies can produce results that significantly explain relationships with smaller sample sizes.

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