Why you can’t rely on past experience to identify the successful leaders of the future

Insight shared by:

Kiddy & Partners

The increasing pace of change in our operating environments has forced many organisations to up their game in terms of leadership assessment and selection.  The rapid rate of change that now characterises virtually all work environments places a limit on the value of past experience in predicting future performance.  In other words, employers can’t assume that the candidate with the most years under their belt will be the best performer.

In fact, even when you lift the lid to look at an individual’s past performance in more detail, it is only a reliable predictor of how they’ll perform in future if you’re looking for the right things, in the right place, and in the right way. Otherwise, you’re simply gathering data and not insight. 

Ask any assessment or HR specialist and they will tell you how critical it is to make people decisions based on objective data and evidence, rather than simplistic measures, or worse, subjective opinions. We’ve all heard the horror stories of leaders being appointed based on being great pals with the hiring manager or the robust assessment method of ‘having a coffee’. And best practice assessment does tell us that we should gather specific evidence of a behavioural capability to ascertain whether a person has the right skills we’re looking for.

When making leadership decisions, the stakes are even higher. Making the right decisions has a significant impact - positively or negatively - whether they are recruitment decisions, promotion decisions or performance decisions. It affects the success of your business, your teams and can have a profound impact on your reputation for being a fair and transparent employer. So, employers must be confident in their judgements of candidates’ ability to succeed in a particular role in future.  

What are the risks of relying on past experience?

Just because a person lacks experience in a particular area doesn’t mean they can’t succeed at it.  We’ve all done something for the first time and we don’t all automatically fail just because it’s new. No-one is born a leader and, as a good colleague and I have been recently discussing with one of our important clients, there is no such thing as a finished article when it comes to leadership capability. 

Plus, relying too heavily on past performance unfairly disadvantages those who haven’t had the opportunity to demonstrate their skills in a professional context. We know that the working world is systematically biased and structurally favours certain groups or populations over others. By only considering people who have done something before, we perpetuate and amplify this disadvantage rather than creating an objective and level playing field.

So, am I telling you to stop gathering objective evidence and start making subjective decisions? No. I’m suggesting that we need to be creative and look for something different. For example, how somebody learns. Or how they quickly hit the ground running. Or how they’re able to deliver in a novel area where they don’t have previous experience, where they need to knit together different experts’ advice and where they must leverage the team to produce impactful results, fast. These are the important things to look for in your future leaders.

The wrong things to look for, in the wrong places, in the wrong way:    

  • Evidence that a leader has done the exact role before
  • Examples of tackling the identical issue or specific opportunity as in the role you’re recruiting for 
  • The same, narrowly defined experience that all your leaders have 
  • Using CVs or LinkedIn profiles alone as a sifting tool – as pointed out in this HBR article    
  • Only considering candidates that have relevant, but narrow, experience in the role you’re recruiting for, and not considering those who have taken a more unconventional career path – especially if you are seeking to improve the diversity of your leadership
  • Focusing only on the capabilities that have helped your business to succeed in the past even if they’re not really required in the future

The right things to look for, in the right places, in the right way: 

  • Competency-based interviews that assess a leader’s future potential
  • Evidence of learning, openness to feedback, personal growth and development
  • How they have tackled new and evolving challenges 
  • Examples of them putting themselves out of their areas of expertise, successfully moving into different areas and delivering positive results at pace
  • People with different perspectives, experiences and expertise compared to your existing leaders
  • The capabilities your organisation requires in the future  
  • How leaders perform in simulation-based assessments that put people in novel, stretching environments to demonstrate previously untested skills and level the playing field for all

Overall, I’m not saying we should throw out the rule book on what constitutes robust and fair assessments, just that we should continue to challenge ourselves – as well as our business leaders and hiring manager stakeholders – to ensure the decisions being made are actually as fair, unbiased and relevant to your organisation’s future, not it's past.

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