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Competence is not enough

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Mark Loftus argues that character assessment is the key to selecting the most effective leaders.

This article has a very simple point to make. All of us in business must take our innate ability to assess character and use it to predict how leaders will shape the character of their organisations. The systematic assessment of character may offer an elusive edge to the challenge of choosing leaders who will play their part in creating organisations that people want to work for.

The hole at the heart of assessment

Our consultancy is founded on two principles: First, to help our client organisations to be outstandingly successful at whatever they have set out to do and second, to create places where people want to bring their talents and their soul to work. Twenty years of experience has taught us that the most significant thing an organisation can do to achieve these things is to choose its senior leaders as much for character as for competence. This same experience has shown us that concern for competence has become all-consuming and that the ability to assess character in a similarly systematic and rigorous way has been lost, if it ever existed.
Selection techniques have come a long way in the past few decades. On his retirement from his 38 years as CEO of Hays recruitment, Dennis Waxman, reflected on the new environment: "Selection is more professional, egalitarian, with more concern for equal opportunities and we have moved a long way from the days when a Personnel Director could 'spot a good chap'. But with this ability to get square pegs into square holes, something has been lost."
Most senior people seem to accept that structured assessment, based around competencies, gives more reliable and objective information. The explicit nature of role-profiling, candidate specification and structured assessment provides an obvious logic for decision-making. It can also offer good cover if ever a decision is challenged. Yet time and again we are told that the questions people most want answering about an individual are: "What are they really like? What makes them tick? What is driving them? Will I be able to work with them?"
The Thinking Partnership director Philippa Dickenson has for a number of years been researching the nature of the chairman-CEO relationship. This comment is from one of her research interviews - the chairman of a major FTSE 100 company, someone seen by many as one of Britain's most capable chairmen: "Look for evidence that they have had experiences that are character building. You can spot the places in their lives or the incidents that are bound to have tested them, those can shape your outlook - so if you've gone through a lot of fire and bullets in the business sense, you develop an ability to be reasonably shock-proof, to be well ballasted, to not be blown around, but to be mature and stable. The reality is you acquire that through experience. Whereas I think the egotistical person that gets through with a big ego…I sometimes doubt he has ever really had the formative experiences that really make for the person who can last the distance."
What is striking in this comment is that this chairman does not say that he looks for evidence of particular competencies, and neither does he talk about particular personality traits. He talks about character; competence is more or less taken for granted. This is a conversation which we have seen replicated many times in our work with senior leaders, both in our leadership coaching work and when we have been advising on senior executive selection decisions.

 

The character traits of leaders

Since the early part of the twentieth century psychology has played a major role in developing new approaches to assessing individuals. From the foundations of measuring intelligence, through more recent studies of temperament and personality, the study of individual difference has been a central concern. Progress in these areas is manifest in today's psychometric testing and questionnaire industry which, in turn, provides the bedrock for much of the current approach to assessment.
For the most part, however, we have shied away from facing up to the task of creating a formal framework for the assessment of character. Assessing competencies is relatively straightforward, while measuring character is perceived to be extremely difficult. Yet across history, for as long as mankind has told stories, the concern has been with character and how character may be shaped through grappling with fate, seeking to impose will on the world, or to reach wisdom through acceptance of that which cannot be changed. The concern for 'a good man' transcends times and cultures.
This neglect of character is at last beginning to change, led by Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson's work at the Values in Action Institute, as described in their book 'Character Strengths and Virtues.' They started with the great books of human history, such as Homer, the Bible, the Vedas, the Qur'an, and worked through them to understand which character traits across history and across cultures have been universally valued.
The framework they propose is extensive, and encompasses a number of traits perhaps less immediately relevant to organisational life such as 'spirituality' or 'appreciation of beauty'. In our own leadership work we have found a narrower set to be most useful, encompassing traits such as wisdom, courage, responsibility and restraint.
For nearly a decade, we have been developing our ability to assess these traits reliably. Additionally, we are always curious about an individual's personal levels of energy, motivation, drive and appetite for leadership, through which their character may be manifest.

How to measure character?

Once it is clear what we need to assess, the practicalities of how to do it can be approached with the same rigour that has been applied to assessing intelligence, personality and competence. This means a concern for things such as consistency of rating among assessors, using coherent scales of measurement, avoidance of errors or biases, and achieving reliable results through time. The process is not straightforward, which is perhaps why it has been avoided for so long. Our concern for rigour has to be balanced against the pragmatic need to create measurement methodologies that are respectful both of people and their time and which do not feel intrusive.
We have decided against the over-use of questionnaires as many are too specific for our needs, focusing in-depth on specific character traits. Instead, our core method is now a traditional one - the conversation, and the measuring tool is equally traditional - human interaction.
We invite people to talk to us about themselves: about their work, the challenges and dilemmas they face, about their relationships, about what motivates them or demotivates them, about their life when they are not working and about formative experiences. Our intent is to seek to understand, and perhaps see a coherence that they may have missed, but also to be alert to lack of coherence, to parts of their story that do not make sense. We have been applying ground-breaking research by Professor Peter Fonagy and his team at UCL on mind-awareness (the underpinning of emotional intelligence).
Careful transcript analysis enables us to track an individual's awareness of other people's minds - not by what the individual says, but by how they say it. Our experience is that this kind of conversation, combined with the use of transcript analysis, yields abundant insight into character. When combined with benchmarking against our extensive and growing database, it renders character reliably measurable.
Not only does this systematic approach increase our ability to make predictions about leadership effectiveness, but it allows us to explore connections between character traits. Take, for example, a client asking for leaders with 'personal presence'. We now know that a person assessed as strong in this quality is much more likely to be seen to have other perhaps equally desirable traits such as 'perseverance' and 'bravery'. Yet they are also much less likely to show evidence of traits such as 'compassion' and 'integrity', and in turn are likely to be less effective at engaging people into action. This is not to say that there is an absence of leaders with both integrity and personal presence, just that it is the rare person who holds both of these together.
For our clients we can then explore which are the more important character traits for their organisation. This can lead to a fresh interest in looking again at candidates who perhaps shone a little less brightly in the extrovert world of their assessment centres; character traits which made a striking first impression are not necessarily those required for a particular position within an organisation.

Conclusions

First, that it is possible to understand and assess character, and that it is possible to do this systematically and reliably, as systematically as any other aspect of an individual. Second, that when we do this, it adds something very significant to the assessment process, bringing a deeper level of understanding and engagement to the assessment. Third, this approach also gives a greater ability to predict the way in which the character of the leader will shape the character of the organisation, and in turn, its ability to survive, thrive and become a place where human beings wish to engage their talents.

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Mark Loftus is the founder of The Thinking Partnership - a leadership consultancy aimed at helping businesses to create value through the way they lead their people. 

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