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Why Selecting Leaders Is So Difficult In Practice - Reason #8: Some Attributes Are Undervalued, Misunderstood or Hard To Weigh In Importance

January 13, 2017 at 10:30 AM

I once asked a small group of executives to speculate on the most important attributes for career success. The ensuing combined list contained almost 25 different attributes including work ethic, drive, initiative, loyalty, winning attitude, conscientiousness, team-orientation, integrity, intelligence, passion, enthusiasm, commitment, integrity, judgment, courage, etc etc etc.

I was recently reminded of this decidedly long, ‘short-list’ of attributes when our firm was asked to assist an organization find their new CEO. The ‘must-have’ and ‘nice-to-have’ lists of attributes provided by the Board of Directors were almost identical in number and breadth to the list provided by the small group of executives.

In recruiting, broad questions beget unhelpful answers. Asking ‘what do we want in a CEO’ or ‘what makes an outstanding CEO’ lacks reference to context and leads to generic responses. Such questions are also static in that they imply as a starting point an executive already settled in a role and company. The reality, however, is that someone being hired from outside to lead an organization or a function must deal with key transitional challenges if they are to succeed. Some can be exceptionally difficult. Yet the skills and experience required to address them are rarely incorporated into attribute wish lists.

‘Adaptability’ is defined as the capacity to ‘change or be changed to fit a changed circumstance’. Any executive walking into a new company and role needs to quickly assess the environment, the people, the company’s culture and circumstances and adapt to that environment as part of executing whatever mandate they were given going in. It is a set of skills taken for granted but which varies greatly across the executive ranks. Consider as an example fast-growing entrepreneurial companies. At some point, as part of their maturing process, such firms add process-oriented professional managers to their team and often dip into larger companies to find them. The subsequent success of those hires will in part depend on whether they are able to adapt to the very different organizations and cultures that hired them. Thus, it is important to probe candidates for previous instances where they have entered a new company and been tasked with a similar change-related mandates, how they went about it, what worked and did not, why, what they learned, how they would act differently next time etc.

There are a number of other attributes that tend to fall into the crevices of selection. For example, ‘resilience’ is still rarely mentioned despite the many well received books on it and its cousin ‘grit’. Similarly, ‘self-awareness’ is unappreciated as a key enabler and predictor of continued skill development and competence.

For organizations seeking to hire key staff, open discussions to include context, culture, obstacles to success, how performance will be gauged (outputs and behaviors) and what someone will need to excel at to meet their objectives. This promises to better align specific roles with the attributes needed to address them and shine a light on those often overlooked or underappreciated attributes.

About the Author


Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 Ext. 777