I recently attended a wedding in Vermont and during the reception, I found myself seated next to the CEO of a start-up company.
As we chatted, I shared with him that I worked in leadership development, as well as my company’s recent focus of learning agility.
I had to define for him that learning agility is finding yourself in a situation you have never been in before, not knowing what to do and figuring it out. He said, “We experience those situations all the time in our company.”
Most organizations have a lot of these experiences, and yet they don’t capitalize on them. Often, they put an employee in a situation who has already performed that role, function or duty at least several times before. That person has previously learned what there was to learn, so it is not a question of him or her working through the unknown. In start-ups people are spread thin and must wear multiple hats. It is in filling that grey area between clearly defined roles that you find that unknown, that unique learning opportunity.
I could tell quickly that this CEO was pretty learning agile because he asked a lot of questions. Learning agile people are curious and attracted to new and different situations in which they can learn.
The CEO, whose name is also Dave, asked me how early in someone’s career or at what age you could tell whether a person has senior management potential. Big companies spend huge sums of money on that question and in their high-potential programs. High potential is defined in many companies as the ability to move up at least two levels in the organization. So, if a person was an individual contributor, being promotable two levels would put them at a director position, for example, and a first line manager would have the potential to be promoted to vice president.
The real question CEOs want to know the answer to is: Who among my thirty-somethings has the potential to be my successor in 20 years? It’s a million-dollar question, and the key to answering it is learning agility. Who among these people can I keep putting into bigger, tougher and different jobs with more uncertainty and they will figure out how to be successful?
So, the short answer to Dave’s question is late 20s to early 30s. There is really no magic age. You essentially want someone who has been working for you for a few years and has produced some significant results.
One thing results will tell you is their work ethic. Can he or she do something of extremely high quality, on time and within budget? Your high potentials will meet those requirements - and then many times exceed your expectations with their results.
It’s also good if someone has already had a leadership role. Doing something yourself versus getting something done through others is a big adjustment. Having an eye for talent and being able to assess those capabilities in others also takes time to develop. Being in a situation where you must have difficult conversations and doing that effectively takes some seasoning.
Failure is also a great teacher. Being able to work through a difficult situation and turning that situation into a success is a measure of potential. When I interview candidates for a position, I will often ask them to name a time where they were unsuccessful. Some hesitate to give me a response but I give them time to think. More often, the high-potential folks begin describing a failure they turned into a success. They key in on it as a failure, but the result was a success. They use potential failures to motivate themselves from failing to succeed.
As you can see, it is difficult to put these experiences on a rigid timetable. Typically, five to seven years into a person’s career, the person will have had enough of these “tests” to determine if they are high potential.
Succession planning programs at companies look at performance and potential. We have just been talking about the performance side of the equation. The Burke Learning Agility Inventory allows us to measure the potential side. In addition to an overall measure of learning agility, you get information about how capable a person is across the nine dimensions of learning agility. Knowing this can inform what kind of experiences or “tests” you want to put a person in to determine future potential.
Dave’s last question to me was, “What three skills and/or competencies would you look for in a senior manager?” Dave, that is a lot to ask. I fudged a little, but here was my answer:
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