Navigation SearchNavigation ContactNavigation Products
Leader Pulse
Leadership ideas, trends, and smarts

Hidden in Plain Sight: Who’s Not Getting a Shot at the Top Jobs?

By Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

In an earlier post, we showed how leadership skill varies—in many cases wildly—across functions. These skills are based on highly accurate measurement of actual leader behaviors, gathered through structured, day-in-the-life simulations. But leadership advancement decisions are rarely based solely on skill; just as important, sometimes even more so, is whether all leaders are given the same opportunity to even apply for higher-level leader positions.

Or, are companies more likely to consider merely those in functions traditionally tapped as feeder pools for key senior leader and executive roles, while overlooking others out of a lack of awareness or repeating past habits? And, if they are failing to look across the organization for talented leaders, what skills are they missing out on?

To gauge these patterns, we looked at the composition of four different candidate pools—mid-level, operational, strategic, and C-suite. Our results are shown in the “Proportion of a Leader Level” graphic below. In this graph, a wider stream means that the function made up a larger proportion of candidates at that level.

Skill Gap

Candidate pools changed dramatically moving from mid-level to C-suite: Finance and Operations backgrounds comprise larger portions of the higher-level candidate pools (over half of C-suite candidates among all major functions) while HR, IT, and Engineering make up miniscule portions. When comparing against their full skill profile below, Finance and Operations appear overrepresented, likely indicating the high—and arguably overly so—weight placed on financial acumen, business savvy, and global acumen when assembling strategic and C-suite candidate pools.

Dysfunctional Skill Gap

While Finance and Operations experience brings valuable perspective and knowledge to aspiring CEOs, it can come at the cost of skills where one or both of these functions is often weaker: talent-building, team leadership, customer focus, visionary leadership, and entrepreneurship. Our data tells us that Finance and Operations leaders tend to have deep skill, but also narrower than many other functions. Conversely, Marketing/Advertising and to a lesser extent Sales (which was well-represented as a feeder pool for strategic but not C-suite roles) were notably underrepresented compared to their strong overall skill profile as shown above. Other functions, such as IT and especially HR, barely registered among top-level leader candidate pools.

Recommended actions to better match leader skills to opportunities

  1. View a leader’s functional background as an initial gauge of relevant experience for senior-level leader roles, but capture additional information about job-relevant skills to put functional experience in the appropriate context.
  2. Carefully evaluate succession plans for functional representation to ensure that candidate pools reflect strengths that span interpersonal as well as management skills, rather than historical trends or assumptions about the few “right” functions as pathways to the C-suite. Otherwise, talent-building, team leadership, and customer focus can be unintentionally neglected before a promotion decision is even made.
  3. When choosing senior teams, assemble a complementary group to draw on unique cross-functional strengths. Relying exclusively on a narrow set of functions for the senior team can lead to stifled perspectives and a lack of diverse ideas.

Taken together, this research shows just how narrow the routes to—and opportunities for—the C-suite actually are for many companies. In some cases, a heavy focus on just one or two functions to find the next top leader may well be justified. However, before organizations cast their narrow nets, we advise them to do it based on verified talent strength rather than out of mere habit.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D. is DDI’s Chief Scientist and director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER).

Get more information about Dys-FUNCTION-al Skill Gaps: The risky reality of overlooking undiscovered talent, just one finding from our High-Resolution Leadershi research. Through 18 different lenses on the implications about leadership, we see everything from how leaders impact financial growth to economic turnaround to their skyrocketing rise to the top.

Posted: 05 Feb, 2016,
Talk to an Expert: Hidden in Plain Sight: Who’s Not Getting a Shot at the Top Jobs?
* Denotes required field
 Security code