Leader Obsession losing firms millions per senior job
Would you know a business leader if you saw one? The question gathers urgency at numerous organisations as it becomes increasingly apparent that cases of mistaken identity cost South African businesses hundreds of millions of rands every year.
The trouble is a top specialist building a career is often a dead ringer for a high potential manager with the capacity for business leadership. The specialist might then be selected for leadership development, move up the management scale and might rapidly take on a leadership role … for which he or she is totally unsuited.
Research by the US executive talent-spotters at Korn Ferry highlights the challenge of differentiating between tomorrow’s leader (a ‘high potential’) and a skilled specialist (a ‘high professional’).
They have lots in common, including …
► Intelligence and solid academic qualifications, perhaps backed by communication skills.
► Confidence and a desire to be challenged in their work.
► The ability to make tough decisions and solve complex problems.
► Eagerness to continue learning and add to their skills and qualifications.
However, the potential leader is a generalist while the ‘high professional’ has narrow focus on a specific area of expertise.
The misidentification challenge is compounded by two related phenomena … an obsession with leadership development (often the overwhelming focus of talent management) and the temptation among specialists to become willing accomplices once they have been misidentified as a leader.
After all, the notion of leadership is seductive. The pay is good. The status is alluring. The idea of working at the very top with all the attendant perks can be very compelling.
But costs can be substantial once a square specialist tries to fit in that round leadership slot.
The US cost calculation by Korn Ferry is US$47 million per misidentification plus one career.
Even allowing for differences in scale between US and South African scenarios, local corporate costs must run into tens of millions of rands per misstep. The personal cost remains the same: one career that has been derailed through a failed move into mainstream management.
More than one person may feel the effects. Promising subordinates may quit because of the frustration of dealing with a misaligned superior who is not really up to the job.
The organisation then loses precious talent while absorbing the cost of under-performance by the misidentified leader.
Other senior managers may try to assist the square peg in the round hole, adding to costs as their time could be spent more productively elsewhere.
Total cost assessment is difficult. How do you quantify the impact of making a top brain surgeon a below-average hospital administrator? You lose the value-add of precious expertise while meeting the costs of managerial mediocrity. Similar considerations apply in a corporate setting.
What’s to be done?
US research has enabled the development of assessment tools and methodologies to assist in correct identification. We see growing demand for these services locally.
Another positive is the realisation that top specialists can be just as valuable as leaders. As a result, we’re seeing better specialist remuneration – a small price to pay when the alternative is millions in wasted time and resources.