Destination Boardroom 2: Seeking and Finding the Leaders For What’s Next

In Chapter 2 of our series exploring the journey to the boardroom, we focus on discovering early-stage talent — the Leaders for What’s Next.

How can hiring organizations build a more sensitive talent radar? What do leaders need to do to appear on it? What search strategy is needed to find the exceptional candidate?

The search for the perfect candidate must be thoroughly prepared and plotted across a wide terrain, says Eelco van Eijck, author of this series. The stakes are high: these are responsible positions and no-one wants expensive and pointless mismatches. We present a case in point.

Destination Boardroom 2 - Talent Radar

The Talent Radar

To succeed in the war for talent means spotting the signals of leadership potential from the outset of a candidate’s life and career. Based on interviews with dozens of talent development strategists, we list 11 key early stage ‘talent indicators’.

Is talent alone a guarantee for success? American psychologist Angela Duckworth asked why talented people often struggle to achieve their goals, while less talented people sometimes perform amazing feats without a struggle. Her research led her to the ‘grit factor’; a mix of complete surrender and the determination to work towards long-term goals.

Executive search follows a certain strategy and structure. We'll break this down in a later chapter). For now here's a case that shows how such a search strategy worked for a top position at a multinational. So, a look in the headhunter’s kitchen.

1 - Searching - a Case in Point

A global decorative materials player was seeking a Global Head of Color to develop a vision for all business units: from research and development to marketing and sales. Van Eijck: “My colleague and I spoke to some stakeholders to get a feel for the company. Then we linked back to the client. Our proposal set out that we wanted to find suitable candidates from other leading companies where color is an important part of the product experience.”

Van Eijck started the search within the world of 'experience and creation’. Color was just one part. He focused on the automotive industry, cosmetics, lifestyle/decoration and fast-moving consumer goods, where packaging and color are important. Based on ninety scanned candidate profiles, a longlist of more than twenty people was created. In the end, he presented his client with a shortlist of four candidates, whose competencies he recorded on a 'scorecard'.

Van Eijck approached the Strategy Manager of Color, Accessory and Design of a Japanese car manufacturer in the US. A French national working in California, he had been one of the project leaders in the tender for the new New York Taxi, introduced as the standard yellow cab from 2013. The new taxis not only had to meet technical criteria such as emission requirements, the yellow color had to look the same on Fifth Avenue with its high-rise buildings and lack of sunlight, as in Brooklyn, with its low-rise buildings and lots of sun.

The search continued with the Swiss branch of a fast-moving consumer goods organization. There, Van Eijck met a manager with worldwide responsibility for cosmetic product packaging design. Based on her knowledge and skills, she had written a book on ‘the effect of colour perception’.

And so to a major lighting manufacturer and an expert in the light spectrum field. He was one of the leaders of a project focused on advanced, wireless atmospheric lighting. At the final presentation of the candidates to the hiring organization, this expert stood out.

Van Eijck also consulted an executive from outside the world of color; the head of the sound lab for a leading automotive manufacturer. The company employs six psychologists who carry out ongoing research into ‘sound perception'. If, for example, you buy an electric Coupé and miss the roar of an engine, you can take out the option of the sound of an Aston Martin, Ferrari or Maserati.

Finding candidates for top positions requires a strategy. The hunt for the perfect candidate (m/f) is thoroughly prepared and plotted across a wide terrain. The stakes are high: these are invariably responsible positions and no-one wants expensive and pointless mismatches. As a 'side-catch', the executive search firm can usually add a dozen new profiles of candidates to the database. This method prevents the same lists from circulating when nominating candidates.

2 - Being Found

International research shows that many organizations have great difficulty in recruiting senior talent. A major cause of mismatches is when talent managers adopt a narrow-minded scope. It’s time for a new playbook. INSEAD gives some tips, ranging from showing more understanding and appreciation for the core qualities of ‘job hoppers’, to re-hiring former managers for strategic positions.

To succeed in the war for talent it’s important to identify key ‘talent indicators’ at an early stage. Based on interviews with dozens of talent development strategists, Van Eijck drew up a list of eleven factors. These can be adapted, shortened or expanded. Here’s an overview.

  1. Intelligence (multiple forms)
  2. Passion and Drive
  3. Risk-taking
  4. Learning Agility
  5. Authenticity
  6. Creating One’s Own Conditions
  7. Self-reflection
  8. Feedback-handling
  9. Entrepreneurship
  10. Result-orientation
  11. Empowering Others

A Clinical Eye

In the first years post-university, these are the elements that hiring organizations, headhunters and HR departments pay particular attention to. Van Eijck: “Scanning talent is my job. My clinical eye as a medical graduate helps. Good executive search firms constantly spot talents and then coach them. They're trying to create the right match by putting a talented young manager forward for a serious role.”

But sometimes small flaws or 'external bumps' can complicate a full career step. Van Eijck refers to poor dentition, messy clothing or a strong body odor. Discussing these kinds of imperfections is taboo. Van Eijck: “The art is to surface this in a subtle way and propose solutions. Out of compassion and a deep interest in people.'

A human resources responsible from a multinational (over 50,000 employees) regularly gives presentations to universities about what a leader does. He sums up the essence in five bullets:

  1. Setting boundary lines
  2. Prioritizing
  3. Delegating
  4. Motivating and inspiring
  5. Deciding

Prioritization, for example, is often underestimated; “delegating too little can be a pitfall for someone who has been very operationally active himself." Responding to the increasing use of English in the lecture hall, he summarizes his presentation in a single sentence: “Leadership is what happens between people to create results through compelling direction, engaging people, excellent execution and continuous learning."

The Grit Factor

Finally, to what extent is talent alone a guarantee for success? American psychologist Angela Duckworth wondered why talented people often struggle to achieve their goals, while less talented people sometimes perform amazing feats without a struggle. According to her, real success is achieved through a mix of complete surrender and the determination to work towards long-term goals: grit.

Yet another management buzzword?

Researching, among others, a military academy, salespeople, Chicago Public Schools, the Army Special Operations Forces (Green Berets) and a national games contest, she arrived at her theory of the grit factor. This falls into six core indicators: hope, effort, precision, passion, rituals and priorities. In the long run, Duckworth says, perseverance and passion may be more important than talent.

Duckworth was mesmerized by the strict regime of the United States Military Academy at West Point and by the fact that one in five cadets admitted did not make it to the end of training. This often involved cadets who were top athletes at their university, and team captains. A significant number dropped out in the first summer during an intensive seven-week training: 'Beast Barracks'

The cadets who fell by the wayside rarely did so because of a lack of ability.

What was crucial to keep going was a 'never give up' attitude. Duckworth describes the real stars as paragons of perseverance, not only were they unusually keen and diligent, they also knew what they wanted from an intrinsic motivation perspective.

In other words, they possessed determination and a sense of direction.

According to Duckworth, it's a mystery why talent alone is no guarantee of grit. The power of passion and perseverance proved a reliable predictor of endurance under extremely harsh conditions. This was also true outside West Point: in the case of the salespeople, the public schools in Chicago, the Green Berets and the final of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

What — besides the grit factor – predicts success in the military, education and business? Duckworth concludes: experience was important for salespeople, since inexperienced salespeople dropped out first. In Chicago's public schools, an enthusiastic teacher was indispensable to success. And for the Green Berets, in addition to the grit factor, a good physical condition was essential.

In summary: talent is a necessary condition for success, but passion and perseverance should not be missed.

In the next Chapter we open the box on the executive search industry, and find out why the journey to the boardroom is a spartan marathon.

About the Author

Eelco van Eijck is Managing Partner of Amrop in the Netherlands and a Member of the Amrop Global Board. He is recognized in the Dutch and wider European market as one of the leading FMCG and retail experts in executive search. He combines 15 years senior management experience with 15 years in executive search. FMCG and retail companies seek Eelco’s advice in seeking talented (international) executives, from CEO/GM, Marketing and Sales, to Finance, Supply Chain and Digital positions. In Life Sciences, Eelco supports industry-leading globals in their search for management, commercial and specialized leaders. This series is based on Eelco's recently-published book, Destination Boardroom.

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