Winter 2015
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CTDO Magazine

Debate: Building Leadership Bench Strength

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The argument: Improve the leadership selection process rather than focus on development.

How does your organization build its leadership bench strength? Many talent development professionals back the notion that it is critical to put in place tools and processes that identify and select people with leadership potential. Meanwhile, others wager that it's more effective—and predictable—to invest resources in developing internal candidates.


Melvin Sorcher
Organizational Psychologist

People enter life with a set of personalized genes, making us different from other people at the outset. Then we are shaped by experiences, observations, and interactions with parents, siblings, and other people. All of this happens before we reach the age of three or four. This is our base persona.

Later in life, of course, people are shaped by other experiences, and our base persona causes us to react in certain ways. By the time people enter the workforce, most individuals are fully formed and unlikely to significantly change the way they perceive, analyze, and act. A few individuals, however, are touched by an experience that does alter how they respond, but in a narrow bandwidth.

During my career that included thousands of CEO and senior executive evaluations, two characteristics common to effective leaders jump out of the data: judgment and initiative. While some aspects of judgment often are learned through the process of leadership development, the essential elements are not learned in a classroom. Rather, these characteristics are central to one's base persona. In fact, none of the senior executives I have questioned would attribute their success to participation in a corporate leadership development program—although this does not necessarily mean that it did not happen.

Consequently, I think that focusing on the selection process for prospective leaders is far more cost-effective than the vast expenditures on development processes. The traditional 360-degree feedback process, however, is too flawed to be useful. It lacks a standardized context for respondents, questions are not sufficiently specific, answers go unchallenged, and scoring typically washes out important information.

Instead, I use a transparent predictive evaluation process that is based on multiple criteria and evaluators, with observations over time and in different situations. This process requires no forms, but it involves asking a wide set of questions (over an hour or so) in a group setting of several organizational superiors or peers (who are in other functions) of the potential leader. Here are some sample questions:

  • You've described her ability to make decisions as very good. What would she have to do for you to say she is exceptional?
  • You've said that his judgment is outstanding. What does he do that people whose judgment is just pretty good don't do?
  • Based on how everyone has described her, how do you predict she will perform in a CEO position that requires careful analysis of ambiguity?
  • With everything that has been said and predicted, if he fails in a more responsible role, what is most likely the reason?

This format ensures full candor and evidence-based observations and opinions. The result is a richly textured description of an individual and a behaviorally specific prediction of how that person is likely to perform in a more demanding position. In my judgment, this is a far better way to find talent.
What's more, the questioning in this selection process helps identify necessary professional development actions. In fact, I firmly believe that an evaluation that consists of behaviorally specific questions answered by observers who know an individual well should drive the leadership development process. To that end, the answers obtained during these interviews can help talent development managers sharpen the experiences and classroom training of your organization's exceptional leadership talent.


Joseph Garbus
Vice President, Talent and Leadership, Celgene Corporation

There is no doubt that behavior change is a daunting task, particularly when you try to scale it across organizations. To populate complex roles with extraordinary leaders, we need to get really good at selecting them—using the most predictive methods possible. That said, working inside the momentum of a modern company with real personalities, a broad range of priorities, and day-to-day market and environmental pressure can cause us to err on the side of practicality.

Fundamentally, we need to shift the discussion toward achieving an outcome, not a process or activity. How can we predictably ensure that the very best leaders are effectively delivering the most critical roles at the right level of investment? To that end, we have two levers: hire the talent externally or hire the talent internally. I would argue that hiring internally is an even more predictable bet.

I use the term internal hiring because that is exactly what it is: choosing an internal talent to deliver on a role. The only difference is that you can predict internal hires more accurately based purely on knowing more about them and having had a likely impact on what and how they were developed. In essence, it is a better risk-to-hire profile. Like most talent management decisions, we need to load the dice in our favor by fundamentally understanding, reducing, and managing the risk profile. That, in turn, creates more predictable success or effectiveness.

The issue with constantly turning to the outside for effective leaders is that you lose significant momentum, predictability, and cultural advantage. Barring the need for entirely new capabilities (which is important and not uncommon these days), cultivating internal talent to lead can and does work provided that your practices are integrated and don't stand alone.


If your development practices emphasize the characteristics that are key to successful leadership in your company—and are continuously cultivated by your career development and talent management practices—then your organization will more likely have the pool of talent you need when you need them. All too often, our stand-alone functions inside of HR distract us and the business from focusing on outcomes.

For instance, talent management often sits apart from leadership development. However, if you are outcome-oriented, both practices end with the right leaders in the right roles doing the right thing. Consequently, internal development can be a highly predictive investment—if it's part of an integrated system that is outcome-oriented. What is talent management if not leader development? Succession and talent planning are all part of an effort to prepare leaders to lead. So, rather than start with a work-around by focusing on selection of talent, let's focus on organizing around producing the best talent "outcome."

Knowing your talent is paramount to getting this integrated model right. Unless you have deep (and realistic) insight into your talent's strengths, needs, aspirations, and passions, then how can you appropriately make the best investments in them and, further, realize return from those investments? As consequential is how you are managing these data and making it all available to every stakeholder in the process.

Internal hiring also has peripheral benefits such as engagement, organizational learning, and employer brand. There is a massive lift when talent has internally sponsored learning opportunities and a chance to cross-fertilize in safe environments, contribute beyond their role in business projects, and are able to contextualize how they can operate more effectively. Having control of the learning programs and tools gives us a step up on creating the best portfolio of talent that we need.

At the end of the day, we need the most predictable way to get the right leaders in the right roles effectively doing the right things. My bet is on internal hiring, which has development at its core.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Melvin Sorcher is an organizational psychologist with his PhD from Syracuse University. He was principal of his own consulting firm specializing in CEO succession planning and executive evaluation, related organizational and individual issues, and leadership. Most of this work has been with or at the CEO and senior executive levels in the United States and internationally. Previously, he was head of the GE corporate behavioral research group and the worldwide director of management development for a pharmaceutical company.  

About the Author

Joseph Garbus is vice president of talent and leadership at Celgene Corporation. He is a talent and organization effectiveness leader with 23 years of experience in developing smart and simple solutions across a range of complex, global organizations.

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