When hiring executives, think “thoroughbred”, not “workhorse”

If you’re focusing on finding jacks-of-all-trades, you might need to get a bit more specific

When hiring executives, think “thoroughbred”, not “workhorse”
A new study from DC-based research and advisory firm CEB suggests that firms should drop the generalist approach when hiring new executives, and start thinking contextually.

Oftentimes, lower-level leadership positions are awarded to managers or new hires that exhibit a jack-of-all-trades appeal. Many HR practitioners have dubbed it the “best athlete” approach – well-rounded workers promoted on the merits of being flexible enough to take on any issue that may arise.

But CEB researchers have found that this often results in the opposite: An executive board that’s slow on the draw and unable to effectively respond to pressing needs. Instead, firms should assess candidates on how well their personalities, skill sets and experiences match the contextual challenges of the position.

“Companies have been hiring and developing these generic workhorse leaders when what they really need is a thoroughbred whose strengths are specifically suited to a particular racetrack,” said Jean Martin, CEB’s talent solutions architect.

This practice should extend well past the hiring stage, affecting how firms approach employee development as well. “Once you recognize how well-suited leaders are to the context in which they’re about to be placed, you can use that information to drive much more specific investments in development, and find ways to coach people to account for the greatest areas of mismatch,” Martin said.

By contextually assessing the strengths and weaknesses of particular candidates, firms get a better assessment of the quality of their talent roster. More importantly, they can identify gaps in their team and ensure that future hires fill those roles.  

The study concluded that by gaining an understanding of how well suited different types of managers are to various challenges, companies will begin to think less about a talent “pipeline”, with candidates following a predetermined career trajectory, and more about a “portfolio”, from which a perfect match for the situation at hand can be found.


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