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Assessing Potential: How Speed Changes Everything

by Michael Tobin on

Ten years ago, it would have seemed absurd to find a hardworking, value-contributing professional suddenly over his head and unable to keep up with the business. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon event in any number of industries today. The speed of change and complexity in business renders too many good workers unfit for the challenges of their companies’ business. We have all witnessed this startling and disturbing pattern.

Our assessment of the culprit? Speed. It changes everything. Catalyzed by the confluence of rapidly-evolving technology, globalization, industry disruptions, and a spate of M&As, speed is, to quote Jeff Fettig, Chairman of Whirlpool, “the X Factor.” It is the ingredient that we don’t really have a handle on, and it makes all of our notions less than clear, all of our knowledge less than complete, and our decisions less than certain.

Assessing Potential and the “X Factor”

The assessment of employee potential has been greatly affected by this X Factor, speed. She, whom we were certain had the potential to move up two levels in the company, is suddenly struggling to keep up with the challenges of her current role!

It can be dumbfounding to conclude that a high potential leader may become so quickly over her capacity, but that is today’s reality. We have to be prepared for the breathtaking acceleration of speed and its impact on management and leadership skills when assessing potential.

Complexity and scale have been traditional dimensions for assessing leadership potential. Will he be able to manage and lead through increasing levels of complexity and scale? Typically, the answer for handling complexity lies in the mix of his intelligence and business acumen; and the scale issue is a function of his management repertoire and leadership skills.

But speed changes how we look at these dimensions. The question becomes substantially different: How will he do if things QUICKLY become increasingly more complex or suddenly greater in scale? Can she SIMPLIFY the complexity for others? Does she already have the strong team that will allow her to scale up the business?

How Speed Affects the “Big 3” Of Potential

Historically, and still today, the predictors of success, and thus bases for gauging Potential, have been “the Big 3”: intelligence, drive, and interpersonal competence. They are at the root of most critical leadership competencies that differentiate high potential talent. We submit, however, that the X Factor of speed throws a monkey wrench in the traditional approach to talent assessment. Speed can make us all look dumb, or at a minimum, leave us bewildered.

This is not to say that the Big 3 have been made irrelevant by speed. Not at all. However, their presence in a leader may no longer be enough to gauge their runway given this new X Factor.

Intelligence has always been the strongest differentiator, and, in the right context, the best individual predictor of Potential.  With the ever-increasing speed of change and complexity, intelligence is a great resource. Yet, if an individual’s thinking style manifests through in-depth analyses, being “too smart” and not agile to take a quick decision may be a hindrance where it was previously a strength.

Pure drive might have similar limitations in this world of moving targets, but generally, I find leaders with great drive ready and able to play ball in this new environment. The competition and the challenges are substantial and new, but we find more often than not that top performers adapt quickly.

Interpersonal competence has only become more critical as the speed of business escalates. Quickly teaming, collaborating, communicating, making decisions, and then perhaps dissolving the team appears easier for leaders who find it easy to give and engender trust, for whom humor and a light touch come naturally, who have a thick enough skin to manage the nicks and cuts which we incur in fast moving environments.

Assessing Potential Today

The emerging notion for our time is Learning Agility.  It’s the right term. It suggests the ability of the person to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances or new information (think data analytics!), and grasp quickly whatever is necessary in order to make decisions and take actions. And to be able to do it again and again and again.

Is she smart enough and AGILE enough? Has he demonstrated the ability to manage through periods of rapid change?  Can she make quick and sound decisions with only 80% of the information?  Has he demonstrated the ability to “fail quickly” and incorporate/reapply the learnings from failure to the next problem?

These are newer assessment questions that are quickly becoming standard. We need to ask them and find a way to answer them, unless we’re content with making predictions regarding talent in a world that no longer exists, i.e., where the speed of change is reasonable and we can proceed at our comfortable pace.

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