Hiring Non Leaders

Only 11% of HR leaders are confident that they have the “bench strength” to fill leadership positions when they open up. That means, if my arithmetic is correct, that 89% of HR leaders are NOT confident that they have a strong group of up and coming leaders. 

Yet they continue to hire people with no leadership potential. Or at best they hire people not knowing if they have leadership potential. 

I think, and it’s just my thinking because I’ve not seen or done any research on this, but I think it’s because HR teams focus on the task at hand today. That task is filling open positions somewhere in the organization. Most of those positions are not considered leadership positions. So there is little or no consideration given to the interviewees leadership potential. 

If someone is hired who turns out to have leadership abilities then that’s great. They will be “discovered” in the course of doing their jobs and perhaps earmarked for further development. If they turn out to actually be able to lead then the organization will have gotten lucky. 

I wonder how many CEOs think it’s a good idea to “luck into” their future leaders? I’m betting not a single one. Yet when an organization hires someone without understanding their leadership potential they are leaving their future to chance. 

Sometimes Hiring Managers intentionally hire people without leadership potential. I remember a conversation with a Director of Marketing some years ago who was looking for a Marketing Communications Manager. He told me he was looking for someone who didn’t know anything about marketing or communications. He wanted someone who would do what they were told. He was tired of people suggesting new ideas or questioning his “orders.” 

Ya might say that person wasn’t exactly forward thinking. You can definitely say he wasn’t a leader.

As I write this post there are a record number of job openings in the United States. The competition for qualified candidates has never been greater. That has caused many organizations to lower their “standards” more than a little. 

I understand the need to fill open positions but that’s a mighty slippery slope. Despite the difficulty finding qualified new employees my recommendation for HR professionals hasn’t changed. I recommend organizations hire ONLY promotable people with leadership potential. 

When you can boldly and honestly tell candidates that you only hire promotable people with leadership potential it becomes a great recruiting statement. Word will get out and the quality of your candidates will go up. 

I’d ask every candidate about their previous leadership experience. An answer indicating they have never had an opportunity to lead would be a red flag. Everyone has opportunities to lead. I would ask for an example of when they chose to lead. I’d ask for an example of when they were forced by circumstances to lead. I’d ask about the outcomes from their leadership. What they learned, what the people who were influenced by their leadership learned. 

I’d ask those types of questions to every single candidate regardless of the position they were applying for. 

If they have no answers but are qualified for the job they are being interviewed for than the HR Professional has a decision to make. Do I hire this person who can help us today or do I hold off until and can find someone I know can help us today AND perhaps even more tomorrow. 

I do not envy HR Professionals and Hiring Managers who have to make that decision. But I encourage them to think about how long their organization can survive if the leadership potential of every new hire is unknown.

Don’t hope to luck into your future. Hire people with leadership potential. Help them develop into the leaders that will move your organization forward for years to come. 

4 thoughts on “Hiring Non Leaders

  1. I wonder how much of the problem isn’t caused by the attitude of that Director of Marketing you mention. Notice how much energy is being invested in new ideas and new business models by entrepreneurs – many of whom also have a job where they’re not asked to bring their best ideas and energy. They’re just asked to do what they’re told. I confess to having some of those thoughts in my past as a manager, too.

    The mental model represented by that Director of Marketing (and many of the HR managers I’ve known) is a natural outcome of poor vision and leadership. We don’t have a compelling vision. We really only want to make money or avoid pain. Our vision is too small or poorly formed. Then we wonder why our team doesn’t agree with us and do what we want.

    The leader needs to commit to the vision. People on fire for an elevated vision often don’t follow the rules, but they achieve goals, they create value, they bring contagious energy. We all love working with leaders who create that kind of environment rather than arguing about “just doing what we’re told.”

    1. Great points Mike. When you stop and think about it nothing of sustainable value has ever been created by people who merely do what they are told to do. Managers who only want their people to do what they are told are lazy. They may sit in a leadership position but they are not leading. Authentic Leaders add good people to their organization and then get out of their way.

  2. The other thing is that your candidates need to recognise the leadership potential within themselves. None of the leadership positions I’ve ever been in have been through my actual salaried employment; it’s only been in my present role in the past five years that I’ve been singled out to lead an area of policy in our company, researching a subject (software accessibility) and then taking that forward within the company. (As I’m only two years away from retirement, I somehow doubt that there are other leadership roles waiting for me down the line – but you never know…)

    It’s only been in non-employment situations where I’ve been acknowledged as a leader before now – in clubs and societies, or (for twenty years) as a labour union organiser (in this context, that role was separate and in addition to my salaried employment). In that role, I never realised that I was a leader until I went down particular paths because as an organiser it was expected of me, and found a surprising number of people following me of their own volition!

    Which also makes me say that there are different forms of leadership. You can lead people in a project; you can lead people in an active task situation. But you can also lead people in helping change their thinking; you can lead people to recognise their own potential; you can lead people in exploring areas or subjects that they are interested in but need either validation from others, feedback to make sure they’re on a worthwhile path, or even just lead by allowing them to bounce ideas off you. All these are different sorts of leadership; each leads to different sorts of fulfilment, both for ourselves and our organisations.

    1. Excellent Robert, you make many great points. One I especially find interesting is your comment that you never realized you were a leader until… many people discover their leadership potential the same way. Almost everyone has many opportunities to lead, both at work and in life. We just have to be open to the possibility of having a positive impact on the life of other people.

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