Success Factors

By Donna M. Owens Aug 1, 2008
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HR Magazine August 2008 coverThe right experiences can increase your leadership potential.

When Jenny Xia packed up and traveled from her home in Dallas to China in July 2007, it wasn’t for a vacation or to go sightseeing.

The account supervisor with global public relations leader Weber Shandwick was working for six months as part of Weber’s Global Exchange program in Beijing. When the company sent out a query asking employees to apply, Xia jumped at the chance to experience China and familiarize herself with international operations.

“It was the perfect match of my interests and the company’s interests in Asia,” says Xia, who brushed up on her Mandarin to speak and work more effectively with her new, mostly Chinese colleagues.

Today, Xia has established ties and developed a deeper understanding of the global market. She describes herself as a “resource expert” capable of serving as a liaison between the company’s U.S. and China offices.

It was “invaluable for my professional and personal growth,” says Xia, adding that she now considers herself a better candidate for promotions.

Indeed, getting to the next level in business often means having the right experiences. Yet many workers don’t know what experiences will best prepare them for upward mobility, experts say.

No one has the perfect resume, but people who have experiences that are “accelerators” of potential will be more likely to succeed, says Stuart Crandell, Ph.D., vice president of Personnel Decisions International (PDI), a Minneapolis- based leadership consulting firm with more than 30 offices worldwide.

Developmental Learning

PDI partners with some of the world’s leading organizations and helps them make effective talent decisions, using field-tested strategies and tools so clients can better identify, develop and deploy leaders.

To that end, the company recently released a study outlining the types of experiences that are most valuable in predicting success at various levels of leadership -- from beginning to mid-level to executive.

“It’s like a road map,” says Crandell, noting that the data can be used as a source for gaining insight into talent management and leadership development.

PDI researchers examined data from nearly 4,600 employees in a range of positions and organizations who went through the firm’s one- to two-day assessment process over the course of several years. Respondents reported on different types of leadership experiences and the frequency of those experiences.

Analysis of the research reveals that specific developmental experiences best prepare leaders at different levels.

For instance, the study found that first-level leaders are more likely to succeed if they’ve had cross-functional experiences; midlevel leaders are more likely to succeed if they’ve had experiences handling tough challenges, such as a difficult employee situation; and new executive leaders are more likely to succeed if they’ve had high-risk and high-visibility experiences.

Providing the most relevant ex­periences at the right time -- such as “stretch assignments” -- helps create leaders equipped to handle the demands of a higher-level position, says Crandell.

While rotating leaders through positions and assignments is a common method for developing talent, he notes that organizations can fall short if they rely solely on this intuitive approach. Organizations that would never design a training program without first conducting a thorough needs analysis sometimes rely on intuition, tradition or conjecture when determining developmental assignments.

If the most critical development occurs on the job, it stands to reason that organizations should take a more systematic approach, Crandell advises. “For decades, organizations have had a problem with not having enough people ready to fill leadership positions. It’s important to take steps to build a pool of ready talent and get people ready faster.”

Upward Mobility

So what experiences were predictive in the careers of people who moved up organizational hierarchies?

According to PDI’s data, first-level leaders are more likely to achieve success if they have already had cross-functional ex­periences. Examples include:

  • Standardizing processes and procedures within and across organizational units.
  • Improving the quality of products or services.
  • Redesigning or re-engineering a major operating procedure or process.
  • Handling projects requiring direct participation of parties within and outside the organization.
  • Managing projects and teams that include participants from a number of units or functions throughout the organization.

For midlevel leaders, prior challenging experiences that contribute to success include:

  • Being involved in turning around a struggling organizational unit.
  • Playing a part in the negotiation of a labor agreement.
  • Helping an employee overcome performance difficulties.
  • Developing a team.
  • Managing an organizational unit where a high level of distrust exists between managers and direct reports.
  • Phasing out a major function or unit within the organization.

At the director or executive level, previous experiences that affect success include:

  • Making a highly visible, risky decision where failure would have significant consequences, such as large financial losses.
  • Resolving a crisis situation.
  • Restructuring business investments.
  • Starting a new department, division or function.
  • Taking over an organizational unit where corruption existed.

Crandell adds that em­ployees tend to grow more from their experiences when the organization has an explicit focus on learning.

Resources such as coaches and development programs can facilitate learning, encourage leaders to seek feedback and to reflect, and foster success in developing leaders to their highest potential, researchers found.

Many of these concepts make sense to Lisa Welsh, senior vice president of HR for Weber Shandwick North America in New York City.

Welsh has held senior executive positions leading HR functions and partnering with executive managers. While she has a generalist background, her forte is designing strategic, forward-thinking HR teams, creating and developing quality programs, and identifying star talent and talent management opportunities.

“We look at various ways to prepare talent for the next level,” she says. For example, the firm provides learning programs that everyone can access online, experiential learning opportunities, and a seasoned learning development team that travels around the country offering personal leadership and professional skills training.

And, Weber has a healthy program in place that offers those important “stretch assignments” to people across all leadership levels. For example, one of Weber’s core programs called the “Culture Club” offers first-level leaders a way to glean the tools and experiences they need to move ahead. “It’s led by an executive VP, and it’s easy and fun,” says Welsh, who notes that one of the group’s initiatives included the creation of eco-friendly “green” clubs at offices across the U.S.

Then, there’s the global exchange that Xia took part in and found so life- changing. While open to all Weber Shandwick employees, it typically attracts mid-level employees. It allows them to bring best practices to other parts of the globe and bring back learning.

Finally, for senior-level executives -- VPs and above -- Weber Shandwick’s talent managers look at what types of experiences would prepare them for future roles and continued leadership growth. These are high-potential individuals, says Welsh, “and there are very robust development plans in place for them that include things like annual reviews and succession planning.”

Mere exposure to the right experiences will not guarantee development or upward mobility. Necessary experiences for promotions vary by leadership level because business challenges vary at each level.

Indeed, each company and leadership role will have different demands, says Richard Kilburg, Ph.D., of the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Kilburg is an associate professor in the department of management and director of the school’s Organization Development and Strategic Human Resources program.

While it’s possible to draw general conclusions, it’s necessary to look inside each organization for informal and formal rules -- they vary. Kilburg, author of several publications, including Executive Wisdom: Coaching and the Emergence of Virtuous Leaders (American Psychological Association, 2006), adds that the size of a business matters.

“A company like IBM may have 300,000 people globally, so the opportunities for promotion may be greater due to the number of positions. Larger companies have routine turnover, and an array of opportunities exists to find different jobs,” Kilburg says. “However, smaller companies may be more flexible. With five employees, often there’s no employee manual -- the person in charge makes a decision and goes ahead and does it.”

Experts such as Crandell and Kilburg agree that individuals who will become good leaders share common characteristics. These include:

  • Relating well to people.
  • Taking charge in situations.
  • Being results-oriented.
  • Being open to feedback.

People don’t have to like you, but they must respect you as credible and someone who follows through on commitments, says Crandell.

Kilburg stresses that not everyone seeking promotion has to go about it in the traditional manner. In fact, creative thinking can help.

“It’s not always a vertical move,” he says. “Sometimes horizontal moves can advance your career. You may need to take another job at a parallel position within an organization, or leave, to be eligible for the job you really want. It’s important to know what you want and have a career strategy.”

The author is a freelance writer in Baltimore.

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