Discard The Powerful Information That Delivers Foolproof Career Success at Your Own Peril

What do you call powerful information that contributes to foolproof career success but is ignored by two out of three candidates for well-remunerated managerial and executive positions? In the talent management sector the discussion of confidential data is generally referred to as ‘feedback’ and at a few professional executive search companies it is available to any candidate who has engaged in an assessment process to establish the closeness (or otherwise) of the job fit and determine individual strengths and weaknesses. Job-fit information derived from the assessments is usually not the focus of such discussions, but other data, including very precise scores on personal attributes, can be shared, discussed and ultimately assembled into an individual development plan.

Job candidates trying to find out what to fix or foster for career success need look no further. In the executive search industry, feedback is the closest thing we’ve got to a well-planned fix for slow progress up the corporate ladder. Which makes it all the more baffling that only one in three candidates requests access to this goldmine of information. At least one executive search specialist with strong assessment capabilities goes to great lengths to encourage candidates to return for feedback after candidate selection is complete, yet the response rate over the past year stands at only 30.8%. As an assessment specialist, I admit to a sense of frustration that relatively few candidates request a follow-up session to review scores and interpretations.

After all, the data has the potential to turn losers into winners and winners into super-stars, but not if it’s left to gather dust. Reticence is understandable. We all feel ill at ease when personal characteristics and attributes are laid bare. Assessment results should not tell you anything you don’t already know about yourself. But the way the information is packaged will show how your skills work in combination with each other while improving your 6 People Dynamics February 2012 understanding of the impact of your behaviour on others in the workplace. If the assessment tools that are adopted are valid and reliable and the assessments are professionally conducted, the insights are extremely useful. The perception of you is the reality observed by others. (For ‘others’, read prospective employers.)

The good news is that perceptions can be changed; so can behaviour. Admittedly, this requires a deliberate effort by the individual. The starting point is sensible, dispassionate review of assessment results. After that improvement is a matter of application and time. The way forward is easy enough to follow. Perceived weaknesses have to be addressed. Often this can be actioned on the job. Make a point of listening more and listening skills will improve. Give more time to colleagues and subordinates while showing a genuine interest in them and interpersonal skills will develop. Though weaknesses are unlikely to become strengths, strengths can become super-differentiators that spotlight a stand-out job applicant, turning a good candidate into a great one. Once strengths have been identified, hone them.

Showcase your best qualities to best effect and you prepare yourself for the next leap up the corporate ladder. The analytical manager with an eye for detail and strong focus on operational competence may never score highly for empathy. But as long as that manager’s behaviour is not perceived as destructive and empathy scores improve, that individual can reach the top by reinforcing the strengths highlighted by rigorous assessment Insights like this underline the value of returning for feedback. Those who do are generally quick to overcome their reluctance to see themselves as others see them. They then interrogate their interrogator by questioning the assessor about corrective action — either because they were unsuccessful in their job application or because they are already looking ahead to further career success. Improved self-awareness then becomes the fundamental building block in the evolution of an individual development plan. The plan may give added impetus to an existing career path or it may drive a change of career direction.

A well-formulated strategy will set out clearly defined objectives, timeframes and tips on future action. A mix of actions is often outlined; perhaps on-the-job counselling, job rotation, taking on delegated responsibilities outside an individual’s core competence, academic courses, training, reading, executive coaching and working with peer groups. Those who use self-knowledge as a springboard to career action invariably succeed. Reassessment confirms improvement (often stellar). Progress can also be tracked on the databases of well-resourced executive search companies. Over time, these corporate performers win promotions, land their dream job or are rewarded by significantly increased job satisfaction. Their secret? It’s ‘feedback’ and having the courage to digest it and put it to work.

Michelle Moss, head of the assessment division, Talent Africa.

Copycats Or The Leading Lions Of Africa?

Leadership is often the underlying goal when boards of directors and senior corporate executives embark on strategy formulation. Unfortunately, “followership” is often preferred in practice — a worrying trait as Africa tries to shake off its status as the continent that is perennially at the back of the queue.

Two common factors are usually apparent. The first is the urgent need for answers and the second is the habit of dependence. Directors and CEOs are under pressure to produce results, which is why they call in leadership and strategy consultants in the first place. The subconscious desire is for a quick fa. Off-the-peg solutions can then seem irresistible, while the consultant’s role may be seen solely as that of a facilitator of best practice from elsewhere. In fact, a more fundamental assessment is necessary if the uniqueness of an organisation’s situation is to be understood properly.

Leaders can focus so strongly on answers that they fail to understand the questions properly. Yet a thorough understanding of problems invariably leads to new appreciation of leadership opportunities. However, it requires discipline to spend time within the problem, thinking through the possibilities. Thinking is good, but a leader’s starting point is listening. Again, it is necessary to be thorough about it by listening to all stakeholders. Industrialisation occurred first in the West. Therefore, Africa has no first-mover advantage. We have to exploit our last-mover advantage instead. One of our continent’s big problems is lack of infrastructure (one result of coming last), but even this can be turned to advantage. Most countries in Africa don’t have to worry about amortising investments in old smokestack industries. Without this baggage, African business can focus instead on new, green industries. Sometimes we make a start, but fail to follow through. For instance, the wind-up radio is an Anglo-African development that was commercialised in South Africa.

Other ideas came through like wind-up cellphone power generators and wind-up torches, but you can’t help thinking that if this breakthrough had been pioneered by the Asian Tigers or the United States, a substantial wind-up industry would today be in place. Other opportunities exist. Our continent is potentially the world’s biggest cellphone market, thanks to a combination of long distances and almost non-existent telephone-line networks. Our need for affordable, reliable communication should turn us into the drivers of cellphone-industry innovation, but the tendency is to wait for 3G and 4G solutions to be developed in Europe, the U.S. and Asia. This brings us to the second impediment to real leadership — the habit of dependence. We are well aware of the scourge of “dumping” in a trade sense, but fail to realise that intellectual dumping also happens. Some of our teachers regard outcomes-based education as an example.

We decided to cut and paste an educational prescription from international sources, when we might have developed initiatives suited to our own circumstances if we had the discipline to deal with the problem and define our own solutions. While it is important to learn from the First World, our last-mover advantage allows us to learn from its mistakes … and then do something else. We should also have the confidence to pursue our own best interests. Leaders know where profit and growth lie, and are not afraid to head in that direction. A current example involves our membership in the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group of emerging economic powers. The Brics forum can become a talking shop or can be commercialised to our advantage.

Ways of achieving this goal become evident simply by applying the mantra “turn the problem into the opportunity”. South Africa suffers from geographic isolation. We sit at the tip of Africa rather than its centre. We’re at the end of the line — being the hub would suit us better. Our hub objective might be realised by seeking a Brics role as a shipbuilding centre and seaborne freight services provider on the Brazil-SAIndia-China trade route. As shipping services provider to the Brics, we would become central to the new economic-power bloc. To achieve the desired differentiation, we have to overturn past norms. Leadership like this requires courage as you deliberately set the country (or organisation) apart. Dramatic achievement of leadership status is rarely achieved, and admittedly, it’s safer not to stand out.

Perhaps we crave acceptance rather than leadership. There are historical reasons for this. Many of those reasons —generations of exploitation and colonisation — also applied in the East. That did not inhibit the emergence of the Asian Tigers. They were not content to remain copycats. They sought future advantage from the disadvantages they suffered in the past. If we are so keen to learn from overseas, let’s learn that lesson as well.

Dr Simo Lushaba is chairperson of Talent Africa, a provider of integrated talent solutions and leadership development. ‘Thinking is good, but a leader’s starting point is listening: Dr Simo Lushaba is chairperson of Talent Africa.