Promoting the Non-Obvious Candidate

Conventional talent-management systems emphasize the need to give high performers appropriate experiences to help them ascend to more senior levels of management. Companies define career paths accordingly and carefully map, often in a linear fashion, the various roles one has to fill to reach higher management ranks.

However, in addition to grooming obvious high performers who are accomplished in a particular domain, talent-management systems should also deliberately look at non-obvious candidates. They are high performers in other domains who do not automatically fit the bill. This may be because they do not have the expertise or experience typically viewed as relevant for the job. But they do have, say, strong leadership skills or a different set of experiences that may be useful in a wider context.

Roles and contexts increasingly call for improvisation as opposed to experience, or resourcefulness as opposed to resources. So bringing in someone who will have a tendency to look at things differently makes great sense.

Placed in leadership positions, such candidates can redefine outcomes for the better. The benefits are often unexpected and interesting.  Here are some examples that we’ve seen at GE:

  • An exceptionally talented financial controller was moved to head IT and in just a year was able to re-energize the organization. Her strength as a leader helped her to refresh talent, refocus the function’s purpose, and allow IT to reinvent itself as a major strategic partner for the company.
  • The legal counsel of a business was made a business leader with a substantive commercial focus. His negotiation skills, ability to prioritize, and ability to drive much-needed change allowed the business to recover strongly from a tough patch.
  • A commercial leader in financial services moved over to a health care business, bringing with her the ability to structure deals and work closely with C-suite executives. Her multi-dimensional perspective and consultative, solution-based approach were extremely well received by the health care business’ customers.

Success in identifying such non-obvious candidates requires HR to focus on strong leadership competencies such as mobilizing change, decisiveness, building teams, vision, and communicating in a compelling fashion.

For the individual, the stretch is radical, not incremental. At GE we believe that most growth happens when an employee shifts into an unfamiliar role and has to exercise all his or her faculties to figure out the new equation and drive change and growth.

Our challenge is to apply this principle across a range of contexts; constant experimentation ensures a vibrant talent pool. Taking bets on non-obvious talent is an art and comes with some risks. For instance, in critical situations, it is not sufficient to consider the non-obvious candidate without first making sure others on the team possess the necessary expertise to provide balance. In addition, pairing the candidate with a manager who is a strong mentor and coach capable of providing air cover as well as guidance is important. Finally, some extra preparation via a bridge role can help candidates more readily transition to their longer-term assignments.

At GE, we have used “integration leader” (of an acquisition) and Six Sigma Black Belt roles to broaden individuals at the mid-management level so they can better adapt to future opportunities. For instance, someone overseeing the integration of a newly acquired company can only be successful if he or she can influence others, empathize with people at the acquired company, and take a broad view of the business, and has strong project-management skills. The HR system for developing a pipeline of talent should be carefully constructed to put individuals in roles like these to broaden their leadership competencies.

When companies bemoan the talent shortage, they often do so because they have not thought about talent in a broader, more holistic way. We need leaders who can face different contexts and situations and handle different roles. By creating a variety of opportunities for leaders to grow, companies will be better able to prepare their talent for the challenges of a fast-moving world.

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