“Ready Now” and Other Fallacies in Executive Selection
Updated: Apr 14
There seems to be an obsession among many executives in companies large and small, over the concept of “readiness” – the extent to which a person is deemed “ready” to fill a specific role. When looking at how aspiring candidates match up to current opportunities, then at least part of the consideration hinges on this assessment. Is the candidate ready now, will they be ready in a year, or maybe 2-3 years? It’s a ridiculous concept and executives are largely wasting their time pretending any judgment they reach has any precision or credibility. The fact of the matter is that no one is really “ready” in any objective sense for the position they are being considered for. And if we could establish a robust measurement of “readiness”, I would contend that for anyone who is so judged to be ready, it is already too late.
Every selection decision we make is a prediction. We believe when evaluating candidates, that the bets we place on a preferred candidate will be stronger than the potential bets we could place on others. The problem is that we aren’t very good at balancing the odds. Selection is a messy process and the variables that distinguish one candidate from another are difficult to compare in any objective way. The fact that so many internal candidates fail to live up to expectations…or just fail…should cause some humility and awareness of fallibility, but we forge on regardless.
Research Findings on Selection Errors
We are prone to making many selection errors. For example:
We tend to select people like ourselves while proclaiming we do the exact opposite
We have no clear, objective means of assessing and balancing all the variables that go into a selection decision
It is almost impossible for individuals to overcome their inherent biases and executives will form positive of negative attitudes towards candidates that reinforce these biases
We tend to place a much higher value on work ethic and motivation – candidates who show up with a positive “can do” attitude – rather than more reflective and deliberative capabilities
We assume that successful performers in their current role can achieve superior performance in a different role
We show a higher preference for people we have worked with before, without considering whether a higher-level position is a great match for their capabilities in a completely new environment
We tend to downplay the negative attributes of candidates we prefer, and exaggerate the negative attributes of the candidates we don’t
It’s almost impossible for us to overcome feelings of dislike towards a particular candidate, even if they present strong credentials for the job
I could go on.
The fundamental problem is that our primary screening of candidates tends to be based on characteristics that have little predictive power when determining superior performance. The dreaded résumé, outlining experience and job history, qualifications and skills, is the main filter. Should it be one page or two? How much detail? If only we knew. There are companies offering to help you (for a fee) build the “killer résumé”. Impressions (and that’s all they are) are formed from reading and comparing this evidence. Executive search firms place huge store in describing these characteristics as though subtle differences really matter. We have this completely the wrong way around.
Researching Executive Leadership Talent
The work we have done researching executive leadership talent works on the assumption that experience and track record are additive, not determinative. This shouldn’t be a novel idea, but it is. The fact that we can research the talent characteristics more likely to predict superior performance and to compare and contrast candidates against these characteristics, helps correct so many of the failings in selection practice. Put simply, talent is the baseline, everything else is a bonus.
Talent is innate. It persists and is enduring over time. It is difficult to detect from a résumé or face to face interview, and our attempts to discern it are often thwarted and obscured by the articulate and sophisticated executives we interview. Unfortunately, for busy executives who don’t prepare nearly as much as they should for face to face interviews, these seasoned candidates often manage the process better than hiring executives do.
What talents matter for executive level candidates? It turns out that no one set of characteristics defines executive leadership capability, rather it is a blend of factors. We all know highly effective leaders and the one thing they have in common is how different they are from each other. A credible talent assessment needs to reflect that reality. So although we have identified 19 different characteristics that predict high executive performance, no leader will possess all 19. No leader in our database is good at everything, although quite a few think they are. We need leaders to possess sufficient talent for our performance prediction to hold true.
Predicting Top Quartile Performance for Executives
Imagine we assessed a candidate for a CEO or executive level role, and they scored at or above the top quartile in our database. Meta analytical studies (of both initial research, concurrent and summative criterion validity testing) predict they will have about an 8 out of 10 chance of being a top quartile performer. And the measures we use for predicting performance relate to financial, process, efficiency, compliance, revenue, customer and employee engagement metrics…in other words, a balance of extremely important, objectively measurable performance criteria. If these candidates score at the mean of our database, the performance prediction drops significantly to about 4 out of 10 who could become top quartile performers.
Of course, if you lower your performance demands and want candidates who have the potential to be a little bit better than average, then many more candidates will be qualified. But I have never seen an organization become world class by bringing slightly above average candidates to lead key executive functions. And here’s the problem. It is relatively easy for well-motivated and sophisticated candidates to build up an impressive résumé – they check all the key boxes and are often strongly advocated by the search firms who find them. But absent of an objective, predictive assessment, too many fail.
Biases Affect Our Assessment of Future Leaders
Here are two final thoughts to consider. First, every time we have assessed the executive talent levels of “high potential” candidates in companies (and every company has such a list), we find they always conform to a normal curve of distribution on the attributes we measure. This attests to the inherent bias that afflicts our assessment of future leaders. It also highlights the ineffectiveness of so-called “calibration” efforts, where executives meet together in an attempt to retrospectively find evidence to support the decisions they have already made. As serious as these executives are in trying to get it right, these discussions are a process in advocacy and support rather than clinical evaluation. In some cases, they bear a closer relationship to American Idol. Second, we find very little difference in executive talent levels between candidates who are sourced by internal talent acquisition functions and those sourced by expensive and prestigious executive search firms. In one company we built an entire executive leadership team without using an executive search firm at all and this company is achieving class leading revenue and gross margin performance. This saved in the region of $2m in search fees.
We need to shift focus and place weight on the assessment of talent characteristics that have been shown to have predictive power. This information should be the most important consideration, and all of the information on a résumé – skills, experience, motivation, knowledge, track record – is additive. This additional information increases our confidence that a candidate will be highly successful, but it doesn’t predict it.
So, as executives consider their slate of potential candidates, they should focus less on placing them on a chronological scale of “readiness”. What might look neat on a spreadsheet adds little value to the strength of prediction that goes into important selection decisions. They are focusing on the wrong things.
By Barry Conchie
March 26, 2020