Does High Potential Success Lead to Organizational Failure?

About 35 years ago Steven Kerr published an article entitled, “On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B.”

Kerr rightly pointed out that organizational reward systems are often misaligned with desired outcomes.

For example, organizations say they want collaboration yet reward individual performance.

It may be that many organizational succession planning processes are similarly misaligned.

Before describing this problem it is important to understand the difference between successful and effective leaders:

  • Successful leaders are those who are ambitious, have high EQs, and quickly rise in organizations. They spend most of their time building and maintaining relationships, networking, politicking, smoothing over conflict, getting along with others, taking on high visibility projects, and standing out from their peers. Because they make strong impressions on superiors they frequently appear on high potential and succession planning lists.
  • Effective leaders are those who engage employees and build teams that win.  They spend most of their time insuring the right people are on the bus, the situation facing the team and what it needs to accomplish are clearly defined, team norms help rather than hinder performance, team members know how to win, and the team gets results that beat the competition. They tend to keep their heads down and are often overlooked by superiors.
  • Research by Luthans and others shows that there is little overlap between these two leader types, as only ten percent of successful leaders are also effective leaders.

Falsely believe...

Most organizations falsely believe that the skills needed to be successful are the same as those needed to be effective, but sadly this is not the case.

As a result they end up hoping for effective leaders yet their high potential identification and succession planning processes promote successful leaders.

This happens because:

a) Many leadership competency models say more about the skills needed to get promoted than build teams that win. For example, does your organization’s leadership competency models say anything about building teams and achieving superior results? Most don’t.

b) Many of the assessment tools used to identify potential were validated to predict leadership success rather than effectiveness. Vendors marketing assessments that successfully predict promotion rates confuse successful with effective leadership. Just because someone gets promoted does not mean they will be effective.

c) Successful leaders are very good at impressing superiors. Do high potential and succession planning nominees have track records of actual accomplishment? Have they built teams that win? Additional probing usually reveals that successful leaders are all hat and no cattle.

d) Those making high potential identification and succession planning decisions also happen to be successful leaders. Successful leaders beget successful leaders. The same is true for effective leaders. Organizations need to take a hard look at who sits in on and makes final high potential nomination and promotion decisions.

What to do? 

Organizations can do a better job identifying and promoting effective leaders if they build leadership competency models that describe effective versus successful leadership, understand the differences between these two leader types, employ assessment tools that predict effectiveness rather than success, and have high potential and succession planning panels populated by effective rather than successful leaders.