Removing Risk from Senior-Level Selection

This article accompanies In Transition.

Thursday, September 2, 2010
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Leader failure is approaching epidemic levels, particularly among senior leaders. The percentage of CEOs leaving office jumped by more than 50 percent over the past 15 years.

Meanwhile, research also shows that almost two-thirds of external executive hires will fail -- 40 percent in just their first six months on the job. Internal hires succeed more often, but failure is still far too commonplace.

Calculate the dollars lost, opportunity cost, cultural damage, and many other losses, and the equation gives a clear answer: senior-level selection can't be a crapshoot.

The good news, however, is that you can be successful selecting and promoting senior leaders by adopting a few basic principles that the best have put to good use:

Agree on what you are looking for. It is a simple, logical fact that if decision makers and/or interviewers differ in how they define the success profile, then finding someone who fits it is left to pure luck.

A clear, shared focus on the highest priority job requirements is the bedrock of better selection. The key word here is "shared" -- everyone involved in the decision-making process has to agree on the criteria -- which for many, is taken for granted.

Consider a common scenario: A senior team spends an extended period of time interviewing a candidate, only to come away with wildly different opinions as to whether the candidate is right for the job.

That scenario can be mitigated when everyone is reaching their conclusions using a shared definition of the right qualifications.

Speak the local language, with as few words as possible. Business leaders don't often complain about finance reports being too complex, but they won't hesitate to tell HR leaders that our language isn't simple enough. Translation: Speak business, not HR.

Ask a top business leader what she needs a new senior leader to accomplish, and she'll list one or two major imperatives. Turn around the profit situation. Restore morale. Long lists of competencies simply don't translate.

The language of senior-level selection uses business terminology to define selection criteria, and the number of targets must be few.

Make selection a discipline of practice. Having a clear, simple, shared definition of the success profile won't be enough if selection isn't treated like a skill -- to be practiced, honed and perfected through repeated effort, again and again.

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Clearly, the main advantage of a simple interview process is that senior executives will use it. And if they can painlessly use it once, they are more likely to use it on a consistent basis, for external selections as well as internal promotions.

Over time, they'll enhance their own judgment and interview skills by integrating evaluations with colleagues and calibrating on the sought-after characteristics of candidates.

Embrace Objectivity. Warning: All of these practices may run counter to the common belief among senior leaders that their independent judgment is the single-most accurate selection tool, which the daily news shows to be quite erroneous.

The data and insights provided through well-researched and validated external assessment and personality tests uncover strengths, development areas and personal attributes that often cannot be accurately detected through interviews.

When making multimillion-dollar selections, good decisions are about seeing more than what meets the eye, and in this respect, assessment can play an invaluable role.

Matthew J. Paese, Ph.D. is a vice president of executive solutions for DDI. He has consulted with CEOs and senior teams from many leading organizations around the world to design and implement strategic talent initiatives. Matt is co-author of the book Grow Your Own Leaders.

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