In my view, two of the more subtle characteristics of high potential leaders are their belief in themselves and their candor regarding the failures they have experienced.
• If they believe in themselves, they will be self-confident in their marketability and their ability to contribute in any enterprise and, with such confidence they will not likely be distracted from their job responsibilities when faced with adversity. There is a big difference between managing for personal security and managing for success!
• Even better, high potential leaders will have experienced failures and be transparent in sharing them. ‘Book smart’ and time and grade are not enough; ‘street smart’ is an essential part of the package. Failures, hopefully small ones, teach us to recognize and watch for warning signs and to become more proactive than reactive. Above all, they teach us humility.
I entered the workforce when there was a statistical expectation that 30% of graduating MBAs would change employers after the first three or four years. That expectation ran counter to the lingering tradition that once hired, hard work and loyalty would lead to a fulfilling career with a single employer.
Go figure, my first large company employer announced that the division I had worked in for four years would be closing and I would be out of a job. Young, ambitious with no fear and partnered with my wife who embodied the same characteristics, we worked through a contingency plan as to how we could continue our lives with the least disruption as I remarketed myself. The experience prepared us for a lifetime; we never looked back.
In another large company experience I saw emerging leadership rotated into new positions (and locations), often laterally, about every three years. These fast track individuals rarely had to suffer the consequences of their mistakes; that was a fate for those left behind. Not much stuck to them…accountability and ownership were elusive. Top line growth hid many mistakes and there was limited focus on failures. Eventually competition offered a wakeup call.
Years later both these experiences came into perspective when a regional Fortune 500 company began a skid from which it never recovered. It continuously offered ‘packages’ designed to induce employees to leave and if reduction goals were not achieved, job eliminations followed. Some who lost their jobs sought me out hoping I could point them to employment opportunities. By title, most had been part of senior leadership but seemingly owned none of their company’s failure. Their career paths had left them with a narrow bandwidth of expertise and a limited sense of accountability. They needed a job but with rare exception I could not help.
Deja vu? Some predictions suggest that millennials may be destined to change jobs every two or three years and change careers at least twice, in both cases…not always of their own choosing.
Lesson learned…if I am asked to interview internal or external candidates for leadership positions I will look for a quiet confidence in their personal brand equity, and a subtle reflection that while they could work anywhere…this is where they choose or hope to be! With equal interest I will also press them to discuss their failures and what they have learned from them. If they provide only nominal examples or none at all…end of interview.
Two of many cornerstones of leadership excellence: professional confidence and humility gained from failures.