Judging potential

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Mark Loftus highlights the three fallacies we need to be aware of when judging someone's potential.

By the time you read this, Britain's women rowers may have added an Olympic gold to go alongside the gold they won at the World Championships earlier this month. Don't worry, you haven't overslept - it isn't 2012 yet. As I write this, Britain's top junior athletes are competing in the Youth Olympics in Singapore.

In the World Rowing Junior Championships held in the Czech Republic, GBR women won their first ever gold in the women's eight, dominating the race from the start and finishing over three seconds ahead of the next boat. A few days later two of that successful crew, Fiona Gammond and Georgia Howard-Merrill, were on a flight to Singapore to take part in the Youth Olympics.

"When we are judging leadership potential we are making a guess at an unknown future, both for the individual and the organisation."

My daughter has been a classmate of Fiona since they were both at the local village primary school; at senior school they met Georgia as part of the vibrant school rowing club. My earliest memory of Fiona is of a tall but not obviously athletic young girl; similarly with Georgia - a pair of good natured, easygoing, deeply likeable and slightly scatty girls. Both now Junior World champions and likely to be Olympic champions. Which got me thinking about the thorny issue of how to judge potential and in particular, how to judge leadership potential.

There are three fallacies we need to be aware of and to manage in ourselves and our organisations:

The 'I can see into the future' fallacy

In judging potential we are making predictions into the future which, given the way our space/time laws work, is actually unknowable. As humans, we are pretty uncomfortable with the idea that we cannot predict the future and spend much time in displacement activities avoiding the existential headrush. Through plans, schedules, strategies and forecasts we seek to persuade ourselves otherwise. We look to sport as an analogy of business, but the certainty of the eight lanes of the running track or pool has little reflection in the deep unpredictability of the modern organisation. Perhaps the return from summer holidays is a good time to acknowledge this tangible limit to our powers of prediction. When we are judging leadership potential we are making a guess at an unknown future, both for the individual and the organisation.

The 'I could do my boss’s job' fallacy

The person making the judgement about potential is usually the individual's line manager. They will know a lot about the demands of their own role and hence are likely to be pretty good at judging potential for this level of seniority. But they are likely to have only a hazy grasp of what is required for success at levels more senior to their own (or for functions very different to their own). As we saw in the last article, there is evidence that more senior roles require different skills and attributes rather than simply more, or more highly-developed, versions of those needed in the current role. Unfortunately, many who judge potential fail to grasp this.

The 'I can judge potential by having a coffee with them' fallacy

If we then turn to those who are in a good position to understand the demands of senior leadership (i.e. the current senior executives), we get the converse problem. Whilst they understand the role demands, they often have very little exposure to those whose potential is in question. They operate from 'thin slices' of opinion which are exchanged in talent review discussions that can show the worst of human group behaviour: anecdote-driven, evidence-free group-thinking alternating with critical-dismissive interactions and a competitive drive by individuals to have their person seen as the highest potential.

"Drive and decisiveness are common factors at senior executive levels, but these self-same qualities can lead senior leaders into a dangerous land of naïve certainty."

Should we worry? Those who are wrongly seen as lacking leadership potential are likely to ship out to a place where they feel that they can have a fair crack at proving themselves. It is the false positives that we should worry about, because they will be the ones promoted and entrusted to lead the organisation into its complex and uncertain future.

So we find ourselves in a situation where organisations really do seem to get the leaders they deserve - or at least, that their existing leaders deserve. Drive and decisiveness are common factors at senior executive levels, but these self-same qualities can lead senior leaders into a dangerous land of naïve certainty. The open-mindedness to seek evidence, the patience to explore some of the subtleties and nuances in the evidence, the humility to accept that their own views might simply be prejudices: in our research these are all attributes that differentiate success at senior executive levels. And they are exactly the qualities one might hope for in those entrusted with the challenge of judging potential.

Mark Loftus is a director of The Thinking Partnership. He has 20 years' experience as an organisational consultant and is a recognised authority on emotional intelligence and the art of assessing senior leaders. He is a chartered clinical psychologist with an MPhil from London's Institute of Psychiatry, and has a degree in philosophy and psychology from Oxford University.

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