Getting senior leaders involved with – nay, owning – the senior emerging leadership journeys within their organisations is a great challenge for many L&D teams. But using success profiles paves the road with gold, argues Alistair Gordon.
Want to get the attention of your senior leadership team? Try this one . . . “We are considering spending $300,000 on a leadership development program to prepare senior leaders for the step up from senior to divisional managers, and we’d like your help to make sure we spend the money wisely — in the right places, on the right people, and with the right outcome in mind. How can you help — well that’s simple — we need an hour in your diary next week.”
So begins the development of what at Harbour Future Leaders (HFL) we call success profiles (SPs). A simple, but usually compelling, reason for senior leaders in the organisation to allocate 60 minutes to a process that will, if executed right, contribute significantly to profits tomorrow for the enterprise, as well as have a positive influence on profits today.
The author of this article would like to make a grand claim: I doubt you’ll do anything more valuable in terms of getting commitment and buy-in from senior executives than conduct a series of success profile interviews when it comes to getting sign-off on a senior emerging leader program.
Before we discuss the merits of undertaking this activity, let’s define what we mean by a success profile. An external consultant develops a profile of the key success factors — as seen by those currently in the job — for achieving high performance in that position. This is done using structured interview techniques in a series of interviews with people who are working at or above the level for which participants in the program aspire to. In particular, the interview structure invites an emphasis on the differences of skills, knowledge, attitude and personality required in the higher level position to those required at the qualifying position (usually one step below in the management hierarchy). These interviews are carefully documented and reviewed, prior to a document being prepared that describes the common themes gleaned from the interviewees.
These common themes provides insights as to the types of candidates who can make a successful jump from high performance at one level to high performance at the next level.
Why are SPs so powerful?
What follows is a far from exhaustive list, but will give you an idea of why at HFL we believe this strategic activity is pure gold.
1. Success profiles make senior leaders think succession
Properly alerted to the topics for discussion, senior leaders arrive at the interview having actually thought about the position they hold in the organisation, and what makes them successful in that role, in comparison to previous positions they have held. The structured interview helps them through this process. The SP process gets eight or nine senior leaders thinking about this topic at the same time.
Getting nine hours of senior leadership contemplation of the success factors of succession planning for their replacements — at the same time — is pure gold. Most, in our experience, are keen to know “what the others said”, and are receptive to reading and acting upon the success profile produced.
2. Success profiles get senior leaders involved in succession
Via the simple process of a success profile, suddenly the leadership program designed as a consequence of this activity is owned – almost from conception – by the senior leadership team. Every decision in terms of content, structure, participant selection, can be directly linked by the L&D team back to the success profile interviews. The L&D team members become facilitators; the senior leaders the drivers of the initiative, and how it looks. Every L&D specialist will know how valuable such early commitment from senior leaders to a program is, and how difficult it is to get traction without it.
3. Success profiles make senior leaders re-live their journeys
Asking senior leaders to remember how they made the transition from their previous position to the more elevated role is 24-carat stuff. Questions around what they found difficult, what they found surprising, and how they managed what Charan (2001) calls the “turn” typically produce insights for the consultants — and for themselves. These questions resonate throughout the design process that follows. A huge advantage of this approach is that most senior managers remember how difficult and stressful the transition was. They remember the early periods of getting up to speed, and can contemplate the type of help that would have been most useful at that time in their journeys. Many interviewees remember fondly those who helped them make the transition successfully, and quickly agree to offer the same help to those who follow. Many of HFL’s early sessions with emerging leaders feature current senior leaders recounting tales of their leadership journeys. These are always powerful and memorable sessions, often delivered by senior leaders who have participated in a success profile process.
4. Success profiles make senior leaders think about potential
The quickest way for L&D teams to deliver very high return on investment from emerging leader programs is to ensure the right people get selected to participate. Just as importantly, they must ensure the wrong people, those who have reached their performance/potential limit, do not get selected. Given that most emerging leader programs have participants selected against “performing now” criteria rather than the more objective “has potential to perform at a higher level” criteria, undertaking success profile interviews is a good way to break this nexus. Senior leaders are challenged to name de-railers, and these are often to do with participants’ leadership styles, their learning agility, and their ability to handle complexity. Of course, all of these things can be measured by the L&D team prior to selection to participate in an emerging leader program, provided there is the will and budget provided by senior leaders to ensure that the right people get on the program. Insights from success profile interviews can often be used to justify a more professional and objective selection process.
5. Success profiles make senior leaders focus on the cost of failure
What happens when someone who is not prepared, who cannot successfully make the transition, gets promoted? How bad is the fall-out? Making senior leaders consider these questions has many benefits for the emerging leaders program. Firstly, when asked to quantify the cost of a bad promotion in a large organisation, senior leaders usually measure the cost in millions of dollars. These are handy statistics to remember when L&D teams are trying to justify the cost of designing and rolling out emerging leader programs properly. Secondly, getting senior leaders to focus on the non-financial cost of clearing up disasters focuses them, we find, very quickly on making sure disasters do not reoccur. Good people lost, opportunities missed, lost clients, difficult decisions to be made — memories of corporate succession disasters are usually raw and painful for senior leaders. Consequently they are pure gold in ensuring the commitment to getting the leadership journey right.
6. Success profiles make senior leaders think of the future
Any emerging leader program should be oriented to preparing the organisations’ emerging leaders for the business landscape and challenges they will face in three- to five-years’ time (or an even longer horizon in some enterprises). This means the success profile has to look forward as well. While this is often very challenging for the senior leaders, it is an extremely useful exercise. It moves the focus of the success profile away from being a description of existing senior leaders, to a description of senior leaders of the future. This is something that is not at all certain, that all senior leaders are unlikely to agree on, and thus becomes the subject of a excellent debate, prior to any leadership journey being designed.
7. Success profiles challenge L&D teams to produce a bespoke design
Armed with some great data and some important insights, success profiles also have the advantage of making the L&D team design something that is a perfect fit for the organisation,. Not something that is obvious, off-the-shelf, and generic. In our experience, success profiles produce insights that are very specific to the organisation, and often would not previously have been included in an emerging leader program. Ability to “navigate the organisation” is one such example, which by implication has to be dealt with in a very bespoke fashion. It usually involves senior leaders helping participants in this phase. Similarly, having had experience in more than one division is a success factor that often comes up in success profiles HFL has conducted. However, hitherto it has been something very difficult for the HR team to get agreement to execute. If many senior leaders nominate this as a success factor, this often becomes a lightning rod for action in the area of job rotation (something every HRD knows is easy to get agreement on in principle, but tremendously difficult to enact).
There are many other benefits of conducting success profiles in your organisation along the lines described above. As a consultancy which executes these initiatives you would expect us to say use external consultants. We have found using senior consultants with broad experience of working with many organisations at a senior level, brings a professionalism and kudos to the process that is hard for an internal team to replicate. There is also a strong view that senior leaders are more prepared to confide in external consultants, particularly when they know their views are to be aggregated, than when talking to an internal resource.
Success profiles also send all the right messages: HR doesn’t have all the answers, it wants to consult deeply with the people that understand the challenges of operating at the top of the organisation intimately. The design will follow from this in-depth research, and senior leaders will be party to and driving all major design decisions. Success profiles are inexpensive to conduct, but set up much bigger investments for success.
There is one inescapable conclusion in HFL’s view: success profiles provide HR and L&D teams with pure gold. Spend it wisely.
Charan, R., Drotter, S. & Noel, J. (2001). The leadership pipeline. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Alistair Gordon is Managing Director of Harbour Future Leaders Australia.
For more information on how to conduct a success profile, the four quadrants of data captured, and how to use the profile to commence the design of a leadership journey inside your organisation, please call:
Simon Brown, Director of Client Relationships, Sydney on +61 2 9927 3014,
Katelijne Pee, Director Client Relationships, Melbourne on +61 3 8648 6490 or