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ATD Blog

Tomorrow’s Future Leaders Live Their Values Today

Monday, January 3, 2022
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To accelerate talent development, we need a reliable way of assessing leadership potential. How can we reduce our own unconscious bias in assessing potential? How can we objectively predict whether successful individual contributors will make great future leaders? My goal of this post is to help you answer these questions. The solution is hiding in plain sight.

It is critical to identify high-potential leaders

Much has been written about the importance of identifying those who fall within this group. High-performance leaders contribute twice the output of average leaders, according to the Harvard Business Review, and adding a top performer to a team makes everybody more effective. In their seminal work Mastering Leadership, Bob Anderson and Bill Adams found that organizations with highly effective leaders dramatically outperform organizations with less effective leaders.

Simply put, the identification and development of future high-performance leaders is critical. These leaders are “force multipliers” who not only perform at a high level themselves but also raise the game of everybody around them. The sooner we can identify them, the better.

How do we figure out who they are?

While there are many expensive and comprehensive ways to assess talent, the simplest method of all costs little and is right in front of you: Do people live organizational values? Our research is compelling:

  • Our High-Performance Index™ team assessments show an incredibly strong (more than 70 percent) relationship between a team leader living organizational values and employees saying they are on a high-performance team.
  • Our High-Performance Leader 360° reviews show an even stronger relationship (80 to 90 percent) between living organizational values and overall 360° review scores.
  • In a high-performance culture, a significant majority of people managers live organizational values.

Leaders need to live the most important values for their team

Perhaps the most incredible insight is that these strong correlations hold even if the organization has no defined values. The correlation has more to do with whether the leader is living the most important values from the perspective of team members, not the values on the organization’s website. The emphasis on certain values will shift from team to team, with different values having more importance.

This calls into question the way many organizations defined their values in the first place. They often have it backward! Executives commonly define values in isolation and communicate them to the organization. Instead, leaders need to have conversations with employees about which values are the most important. We need to work with employees to co-create a set of shared, meaningful values. Then we need to truly live them daily.

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How do people “live organizational values”?

When we researched examples of how leaders live the values, it was a common sense list of actions that included listening to people, involving people in decision making, and taking the time to show genuine interest in team members on a personal level. Most of what makes great leadership is common sense.

Ask for feedback in one-on-one meetings

Asking for feedback in one-on-one meetings is a great way to learn whether you live the values. Team leaders should ask their employees and of course employees can ask for feedback from their manager. In your next one-on-one you could ask:

  • Which value do people see as your area of strength? Your superpower?
  • What are some specific examples of how you truly live this value daily?
  • What value presents an opportunity for your leadership development?

How can we identify leaders who live the values?

We use a data-driven approach to provide critical data to support talent development programs. We weave questions about living values through our assessments to identify high-potential leaders as well as those leaders who are not living the values. This includes:

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  • Organizational culture surveys
  • 360-degree reviews
  • Performance reviews

Values help us improve the 9-box

Once we understand what organizational values are most important, we have a foundation for talent development. The traditional 9-box talent matrix plots role performance (X-axis) with leadership potential (Y-axis). The problem with this approach is that there is no objective way to measure potential due to the interference of unconscious (or conscious) bias.

Given the high correlation between living values, high-performance leadership, and high-performance culture, we can instead use an assessment of whether the person lives the values, especially if the data is coming from a culture survey or a 360-degree review.

If we change the Y-axis to whether a leader lives the values of the organization, we are plotting performance with excellent leadership behavior. This is a much more effective way to create a talent matrix for three important reasons:

  • Plotting performance together with values unites “what” people are accomplishing with “how” they are accomplishing it.
  • Incorporating values gives people tangible things they can work on in their development. How would you increase potential using the traditional 9-box?
  • Living values is correlated to performance outcomes such as customer satisfaction, efficiency, and revenue. The same is not possible to verify for the vague concept of potential.

Tomorrow’s great leaders are great colleagues today

Our research shows that 80 percent of what makes somebody an effective leader tomorrow are the same things that make them a great colleague today. People who are performing well in their role while living organizational values need to be identified as early as possible. This is a powerful, data-driven method to identify high-performers early and support their development.

What immediate action can you take to improve the way you identify and nurture high performers?

About the Author

Jeff Smith is the founder and CEO of the SupportingLines Institute. He is on a mission to help leaders and teams perform so that people have a better human experience at work. Building on 20 years of diverse leadership experience as a COO, CFO and global head of sales, Jeff created the SupportingLines framework to accelerate leadership development and cultivate high-performance cultures. His mantra, ‘supporting lines, not reporting lines,’ isn’t just a catchphrase. It embodies a comprehensive high-performance framework that delivers tangible results.

Jeff is a member of the Association of Corporate Executive Coaches (ACEC). ACEC’s mission is to elevate recognition of corporate executive coaching as a critical profession and for corporate executive coaches to be seen as transformation catalysts for the 21st century, creating organizations of the future.

He also is a Chartered Professional Accountant, Certified Dharma Yoga Instructor (which earned him the nickname “Chief Yoga Officer”) and past recipient of Business in Vancouver’s prestigious Forty Under 40 award. When he’s not at work he is passionate about family time, practicing & teaching yoga, hockey coaching and personal development.


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