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Finding the future leaders


 Rumours of an upturn are all very well but whichever way the economy moves next, the hunt for the next generation of great leaders is on, says Roger Martin.

But will leaders of the future be the same as the past or do we need to rethink what leadership looks like post the recent financial crash? And what about demand and supply? There will be fewer people in the UK workforce as the Baby Boomer generation retires over the next few years and we in L&D could be facing tough times ahead when it comes to finding those right people. Are you prepared for this scenario?

Think talent


Now is the time to rethink what leadership in your organisation- what will look like in the future after the financial crisis? Future leaders will need to be able to engage their organisation’s staff, customers, supply chains and investors in new ways. Customers especially will increasingly expect those they do business with to ‘take a stance’ on the issues that affect all of us – the environment, social responsibility, poverty, fair trade and the like. In both consumer and labour markets an organisation’s reputation will become increasingly important in the consumer’s decision to buy or the new employee’s willingness to apply for a job. Organisations will increasingly seek leaders who have learnt the lessons of this crisis and can see the upside; having an eye on their organisation’s long-term reputation as well as short-term financial results.
L&D has to ask the question whether future leaders already exist in their ranks and how do they find them. Traditionally we rely on ‘track and academic record’ as the main criteria for spotting the next generation of leaders. Sensible when the demand and supply of talent is roughly in equilibrium, but what happens when it is not? What happens when you can’t find people with the requisite track and academic record to fill your critical leadership posts?
The answer lies in rethinking the selection criteria as well as the pools from which you normally fish for future talent.
Let’s start with selection criteria and consider a very misunderstood word ‘potential’. If you ask people how would they judge someone’s potential, they will frequently reply with words that add up to how well someone is doing in their current role and whether or not they are liked. Interesting feedback for the individual of course, but what does that have to do with potential? Good performance in current role does not always mean good performance in the next one.

Finding leaders in unexpected places

So suppose we defined potential as a person’s capacity to learn and adapt when faced with new situations they have not encountered before – such as when promoted to roles that demand they can thrive on increasing levels of complexity and uncertainty. And suppose we let ourselves believe that learning, described this way, is not always correlated with academic record. That is to say, people who did not do well at school still have the capacity to learn and adapt quickly.
Secondly, suppose we took a closer look at a person’s values and were able to determine the extent to which they are driven by their own self interest and the need to serve others. We’d now have a picture of someone’s potential and values to supplement or replace track and academic record as selection criteria. Armed with that information, would you not begin to rethink the extent to which the leaders of tomorrow may already exist, probably in some unexpected and sometimes overlooked places, in your organisation?
Our experience at Ashbourne shows that when you look outside traditional ‘talent hunting grounds’, such as graduates and those next in the line for promotion, to find the leaders of tomorrow, you get some unexpected results. For example during a recent project on spotting leadership potential in the Black and Minority Ethnic community in the NHS, we found extraordinary levels of potential in people’s capacity to be sensitive to the needs of different stakeholder groups whilst also staying focused on what needs to be accomplished – vital for leaders delivering healthcare across a complex system of funding and a multiplicity of healthcare providers.
This potential lay untapped because in so many cases lack of experience or an average academic record meant people could not get past the first hurdle when employers were deciding who to select for leadership development programmes. Similarly Mums returning to work may have limited experience but huge potential either in those areas of leadership that call on someone’s ability to think widely about some long term complex problems or to engage those inside and outside the organisation.

Developing and nurturing

People have different types of potential and they also have limits to their potential – whether we are selecting or developing people we want them to understand what their potential is and how they can stretch themselves far enough to realise it. We do not however want people to go beyond their limits and have a situation when people end up in jobs for which they are not suited because they have stretched themselves too far.
Nurturing your future leaders is crucial. Whilst this word can imply ‘soft’, I don’t mean it in that sense. Nurturing can be as much about ‘tough love’ as about coaching and coaxing people during a development programme to take calculated risks to achieve new gains from changing their approach. They need a supportive and challenging environment in which they can discover more about themselves, how this relates to their work and the role they play in stretching, but not overstretching, their capacity to learn and adapt.
Are you and your team up for a challenge of finding and preparing the leaders of the future for your organisation?

Roger Martin is director of Development Division at Ashbourne Development, specialist in attracting, discovering and nurturing potential.

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