Promotion practices need to evolve

There is an escalating battle waging to find talented leaders to guide organisations through uncertain economic environments.

This battle is fueled by the technological advances and social media connectedness of the information age, which requires business to pursue innovative approaches to talent management. If organisations don’t change how they promote, better define and measure leadership skills, and recruit to include culture-fit, they will increasingly face leadership challenges.

Promotion structures need to be reinvented
We all know that leadership is a top priority for HR professionals, yet many organisational policies and procedures related to promotions are outdated. This often results in unfit managers being promoted ahead of those who are better suited to the role.

The traditional approach is often to promote high performing specialists over individuals that have general management skills. Some organisations are confusing the need to promote an employee as reward for excellent performance versus appointing an individual who would be the best manager.

The result is a specialist as the head of a department, despite not having the leadership skills required to effectively manage and lead a team. Essentially, a high performing specialist has been promoted into a role where they won’t utilise the skills they were initially appointed for and promoted into a role where they don’t have the skills required to perform, let alone thrive.

In my experience, it is not the best performing employees who will necessarily be the top performing leaders.

Organisations must evolve in order to provide career paths that are attractive to both specialists and generalists. Reward a specialist by promoting them to do more tasks that they’re good at, without adding people management responsibilities. This shift in thinking and culture may seem like a big change, but it will contribute to solving the leadership challenge.

Leadership skills need to be scientifically measured
Another issue facing organisations is the unscientific manner in which leadership is identified. Individuals need to be analysed based on the specific requirements of specific leadership roles.

The problem too is that leadership is perceived as fluid and vague, resulting in ambiguous outcomes permeating through the recruitment and development structures of the organisation. There are very specific factual definitions of what makes a good leader and what doesn’t, and there is a correct and incorrect way to measure leadership skills. These have been extensively researched, and yet companies often defer to the vague definitions. HR professionals also use outdated models that were developed based on old research, which are not necessarily viable in today’s talent management efforts.

I am not suggesting that organisations reinvent leadership, but that real factors are allocated to what makes a good leader. There are generic components of leadership that are good qualities and skills to have, for example, integrity, initiative and respecting other’s opinions etc. But there are also elements of leadership that are moderated through the corporate culture, the environment and the profiles of the individuals that they work with.

Recruit in context of company culture
A highly successful leader from one organisation moves into another and fails. This is because different individuals function better in different corporate environments. Some are great at dealing with uncertainty and unstructured environments like a young start-up, and others are more suited to a rigid corporate culture with established systems, tasks and processes. Therefore, organisations cannot look at leadership styles in isolation.

In addition, a potential leader should be considered in relation to the desired corporate culture, because their leadership style will directly influence the culture that the employees will experience. For example, if a manager has an authoritative leadership style, there’s no way that their subordinates will successfully establish a culture that will contradict that leadership style. To ensure that the best-fit candidates are recruited to leadership roles, an understanding of the company culture and a scientific way of measuring candidate and company culture-fit is key.

Defining leadership
The best way to go about understanding leadership is by clearly defining what leadership means in the context of a specific company. This cannot be done by gut feel; it needs to be tested through scientific assessment. Once this has been defined, the employees who possess these qualities – not necessarily the best performing specialists – need to be identified and tested against this archetype. The best suited employees will then require focused development and training rather than general management guidance.

Juan Swartz is the CEO of Pivotal Talent.