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The world’s best companies purposely identify and develop high-potential managers and leaders. Because those with the right talent and experience are more likely to deliver results, businesses should begin their succession planning efforts by identifying and selecting leaders with a scientifically validated leadership talent assessment. No amount of experience will turn an average leader into a great one.
But it’s equally important for businesses to prepare high-potential leaders with experiences that will develop their potential. “When it comes to preparing emerging leaders for executive roles, general experience isn’t important,” says Barry Conchie, a Gallup Senior Scientist and coauthor of Strengths Based Leadership. “Very specific kinds of experience benefit high-potential leaders most.”
Identifying experiences that encourage leadership success
Every leader needs what Conchie calls additive experiences. These kinds of experiences include running a risky project or integrating a complex acquisition. “Additive experiences are rare, and leaders who are more successful have them,” Conchie says. “So if you want to be a top leader, it’s imperative to plan a career to acquire them.”
But the best leaders have another realm of experiences so transformative that Conchie calls them breakthrough experiences. They include:
- being promoted to a high-visibility position before feeling ready. One example of this kind of experience is putting an executive into a lead position on a key market segment when the executive does not feel comfortable or fully prepared to be in that role.
- navigating extreme cultural adversity. Managing a highly unionized environment, leading the turnaround of a highly disengaged and antagonistic workforce, running a location a great distance from the company’s geographic centre, or managing a function on the far edge of the company’s core competence are examples of this type of experience.
- leading a cross-functional team on a major initiative. Examples of this type of experience include leading a team to decide a new product market segment where none exists or pulling together technology, marketing, and finance professionals to work up a new product sourcing process without having any relevant experience in those areas.
These challenges are so rare that they need to be reserved for candidates with the highest potential. “That’s one very good reason to know precisely who your emerging leaders are,” Conchie says. “You don’t want to waste a breakthrough experience on someone who won’t benefit from it — and may botch the job.”
The right kind of experience is a crucial element of leadership development. But no amount of experience will turn an average leader into a great one. Leadership takes the right kind of talent, and great leaders are scarce, as are the right experiences to develop that talent. “Find out who your highest-potential leaders are,” Conchie says. “Then put them on the right track to the right experiences. Talented leaders and the right leadership development experiences are far too valuable to waste.”
Jennifer Robison is a Senior Editor of the Gallup Business Journal.