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Hiring for Leadership: Context is King

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Hiring great leaders is one of the most pressing priorities of companies these days.

It takes time and resources to find and groom the right people to head territories, business units, portfolios, subsidiaries or global functions.

Companies understand that; they prioritize this search and spend more on it every year. And yet, in 2016, more than half of them reported that they wouldn’t be able to adequately fill their leadership needs.

The “one leadership” assumption

When we look at how companies find, hire or train leaders, we see a common thread in the generalistic way they view leadership:

“Leadership” is this one set of qualities and skills that certain individuals have acquired and honed over the years, skills that will make them successful decision-makers and inspiring influencers.

Companies spend a lot of time thinking about what those qualities are. In a recent survey of leadership competencies, for instance, the Harvard Business Review asked CEOs to rate over 70 personality traits and behaviours that they believed to be important for successful leadership and came up with a detailed, thematically organised list of leadership qualities that could apply to almost any managerial situation.

HBR leadership competencies

Putting careful thought into what leadership qualities to look for is clearly important; it helps hire candidates with the right fit, and gives them the skills they will need to succeed in the company.

Many companies - Nestle and Capgemini, for example - formalize this set of qualities or principles to communicate them more effectively. Amazon’s famous leadership principles are so ingrained in its culture that they are routinely referenced in meetings as a basis for a decision or to back an argument.

No matter how developed and detailed, however, these principles are just one single definition applied to every individual at the company, for every managerial situation they are facing.

A leader for all seasons

The result of such a generalist approach is that, for a long time, leadership hiring and development was standardized for everyone in the company. Rotations through different functions, problem-solving exercises with leadership experts, week-long workshops and online tests… these trainings all relied on the idea that every leader needed the same core skills to serve the company successfully in the long term.

But to what extent? It might be more useful to look at a shorter term and focus on a specific context, instead of spending time and resources in hiring for a longer and more unpredictable term.

Say, for example, that you will need to hire a few senior managers for the talent organization over the next three years. Will your company be going through a series of foreign acquisitions during that time? Or will it be launching a new product and expanding its market?

These two situations require different leadership qualities. In the first case, these managers will need to inspire trust and keep morale up despite the ongoing organizational changes. In the second, they will be expected to keep their teams motivated and productive through a period of increased hiring and fast-paced activity. If you are in a position to know which scenario you are facing, it might be more efficient to hire specifically for it.

This is particularly relevant to the current generation on the talent market. When 38% of millennials say they expect to leave their current job within the next 2 years, it is even more important to consider the specific context for which you are hiring, instead of investing in developing all-around leaders with generalist skills.

Yes, the world is more unpredictable today that it was 30 years ago, but companies still make plans that look three to five years in the future and commit to them. It’s a waste to not use these plans to drill down on the type of leadership the organisation will actually need.

Hire and develop for a specific context

Adapting your definition of good leadership to a specific context should make it easier, not harder, to fill your company’s leadership needs. The idea is not to add more details to an already exhaustive checklist of skills and qualities. Rather, it’s to prioritise and only keep what’s absolutely necessary.

1. Identify mid-term business priorities

What is the company planning on doing in the next 3 to 5 years? Will you be expanding internationally, cutting costs, revamping the product portfolio, going through an IPO?

2. Narrow down your definition of great leadership

If you are planning on realigning different products under the same brand, for instance, focus on negotiation skills and influence.

Look for people who are self-starters and fluent in multiple cultures if you will be expanding internationally. Some qualities are necessary in every role, such as a strong values system and sense of ethics, great communication skills, and the ability to empower team members and help them grow.

The goal, however, is to tailor your definition of a great leader to your current business situation. The McKinsey Global Institute has some excellent examples of companies who did that with great success.

3. Adapt both hiring and training

56% of companies still use standardised classroom-based formats for their leadership trainings. This gives you an opportunity to differentiate yourself: you can integrate MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) to your leadership program, for example, and work with employees to develop tailored training courses. This will ensure you are focusing on the skills and qualities they need for their specific leadership context.

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4. Make everyone accountable

To make sure that leadership hiring and training is given the critical support it deserves, ensures that individuals outside of the talent organisation are also accountable for it. This collaboration will help you stay in touch with the business priorities that will shape the company’s leadership needs in the future.

By adopting a more focused, purpose-specific approach to leadership, talent teams can consider more candidates and groom them faster to step into the roles intended for them. Not only that, they can also better work with the shorter job tenures and higher customisation expectations of the millennial crowd. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Candidate Engagement: the complete guide

If you're looking for more advice on the best way to communicate with talent, the guide we put together on candidate engagement is going to be right up your street.

It covers every aspect of communication, from sourcing, to nurture, to re-engaging past applicants.

You can check it out here