Leadership Matters
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Leadership retention is all about the intangibles

By Jamie Hoobanoff


There are countless studies and reports that speak to the challenges organizations of all sizes are facing in recruiting senior level talent. And when they succeed in finding candidates, employers are equally challenged to retain them.

HR is now functioning in an environment in which leaders are constantly on the move. The average tenure of an executive in a specific role is 2.3 years. Add to this fact the increasing size and pace of venture capital investment in Canada’s technology start-ups and that the market is experiencing the highest growth trajectories ever, intensifying the war for senior talent.

The criteria for what makes for a successful leader have also changed dramatically for organizations ranging from traditional enterprises to rapidly growing tech start-ups. Many of the key attributes for success today are less tangible than they have been in the past.


A new definition of success

Successful leadership today can be demonstrated in a variety of ways, and the journey to becoming a leader can be very different for each individual. A list of credentials and achievements – while important – are not enough to identify an effective leader. Recruiters must look beyond the facts before them to uncover other attributes that will ensure leadership success.

This goes beyond instinct or a “gut feeling” that a person is the right fit. Rather, there are important benchmarks that can help HR professionals determine a winning leadership candidate.

The art of a builder

The first is the person’s ability to build something from the ground up. That could be demonstrated in their work with a fledgling company, a functional team, revenue models, go-to market strategies or anything else that shows their abilities to lead and manage.

An effective approach for determining their building skills is to look at measurable changes and reverse engineer the numbers to understand how they achieved the results. By way of example, a potential leader working for a start-up points to an X per cent increase in revenues since they joined the company. Challenge those types of bigger statements by asking for details. Was the growth generated in Series A round financing, through acquisition or organic growth, or another strategy?

Another important marker to consider is repeated experience. Have they delivered similar results more than once?


Actions speak louder than words

Agility and nimbleness to change on a dime have become common discussion points. To bring that to light, recruiting decisions need to be less focused on specific industry experience and more on what they have done during their time with other organizations, regardless of the vertical or size.

An interesting fact to consider is that 80 per cent of B2B organizations have never been heard of. Professional recruiters have these organizations on their radar while potential candidates – and the organizations searching for them – may not. If a leader has not come from the ranks of an IBM, Microsoft or major bank, people may have no idea as to what that means from a leadership perspective.

Yet that experience with a little-known tech company or start-up can prove to be invaluable. The most important thing to apply in this case is context. What kind of impact has that person had on a company’s early-stage growth for example? More importantly, even if their roles were not directly tied to revenues, what other measurable results did they achieve?

Problem solving is yet another important skill set to consider. A senior Microsoft executive recently claimed that whether talking about a start-up or a multi-national enterprise, the differences are not as big as one might think. They are all solving the same problems, but at a different rate. The only differentiating factor is that in a start-up, problem solving tends to have an immediate impact, whereas larger organizations require more patience.

A telling indicator of problem solving skills would be a person who has gone through a major change management initiative or a hyper-growth stage and navigated their way through disruption.


The universal foundations

In the many interviews conducted with successful leaders, the consistent qualities across the board are openness to continuous learning and self-improvement. These indicate that the person has a high level of self-awareness and an appetite for growing their own capabilities. Successful leaders also put people first – whether that is their team, customers or colleagues.

Risk tolerance is also a factor. Successful leaders are able to take risks, including hiring and developing promising talent. If a candidate worked at IBM, then left that role to join a hyper-growth start-up, for example, HR should explore why they took that risk and how that helped their personal development. One important thing to keep in mind, however, is don’t confuse educated risk with recklessness.

If one had to summarize the one skill that trumps all, it would be the ability to sell. Everything a leader does is tied to business development in some form or another – whether that applies to increasing revenues, developing new partnerships or selling the company itself to internal staff or potential hires.


The wrong path

While these are some of the indicators that improve the chances of successful leadership, there are also common mistakes that can lead to very different results.

The number one mistake is getting seduced by a competitor’s talent. While a majority of hirers tend to look to their competitors first for talent, remember that they are competitors for a reason. The key to success is not in becoming that organization. Rather, it’s about capturing their market share. It is critical to maintain a fundamental difference between what each organization does.

A second potential pitfall is over-hiring for a role. Hiring a seasoned VP of sales – for example – while in early growth stages may add value for a short time. But there could be limited tactical runway left for that leader, which ultimately means a short-lived relationship.

A third mistake is focusing too much on the title and not the skill sets. In today’s rapidly evolving business environment, searching for people with the same title will not necessarily guarantee that candidate has the right ingredients for success with another firm. Today it’s more about who the person is – their strengths, character and skills – instead of what titles they may have previously held.


Dig deep and prosper

In fact, there is an ever-growing list of new roles that defy the usual checklists. When filling those roles, recruiters have to dig deeper into a candidate’s performance and behaviour to find the qualities that will fit. Simply put, look beyond the title to find the raw ingredients that will shape that role.

Finding and developing successful leaders has always been a significant challenge for organizations. Now the stakes are higher as more companies are vying for the same talent while having to understand less familiar, but important, leadership skills. Keeping an open mind and looking beyond industry experience alone when recruiting for fit will help organizations hire and retain leaders, positioning them to win that battle in the end.

Jamie Hoobanoff is the founder and CEO of The Leadership Agency.



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