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Hidden in Plain Sight: The Risky Reality of Neglected Leader Talent

By Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

Leaders can take various paths while ascending the organization, and many do—in our research with thousands of mid and senior-level leaders, we’ve found that fewer than 1 in 3 spend their entire careers in a single function, with 1 in 8 spending a year or more in at least four different functions. With traditional organizational hierarchies flattening out due to economic pressures, moving exclusively upward in a company is increasingly rare, with most career paths resembling a climbing wall much more than a ladder. Cross-functional transfers and assignments are often essential for leader growth, and the time a leader spends in a particular function can be a defining characteristic of their experience.

So most leaders are moving fluidly between functional roles as they advance their careers, but have companies kept up by also displaying a similar level of agility in recognizing and considering leaders from a range of functional backgrounds as they create long-term talent plans? Are all leaders’ strengths accounted for regardless of which floor or department they sit in? Or are certain functions fertile (but too often unnoticed) ground for core leadership skills?

Inclusive talent planning—why it matters and what it takes

Inclusive, strategic talent planning for the leadership ranks must start by pairing a detailed knowledge of the success profile—that is, the competencies needed to be successful in the target roles—with an accurate view across functions at the point where influential skill strengths and gaps are most prominent. Once these are known, organization can spot gaps between the two in order to answer two questions:

  1. How do functions differ in their leadership skills?
  2. How do leaders from different functions ascend?

In this article we’ll tackle the first of these questions and in a follow-up article, we’ll answer the second.

To guide our research, we examined leaders from seven major functions, all of whom completed rigorous, standardized behavioral assessments, to allow a direct comparison of their strengths and deficiencies. These leaders were drawn from a larger database of over 15,000 assessments of leaders being considered from roles ranging from mid-level to CEO. For our analysis we classified leaders based on the function they worked in the longest during their careers. We limited our analysis to the 10 skills that varied most across functions. For each skill, we identified the strongest, weakest, and mid-range functions. Our results are shown in the graphic below:

Dysfunctional Skill Gap

Which functions are most likely to learn from—and to teach—others?

Leaders from two functions distinguished themselves as particularly well-rounded: Marketing/Advertising and Sales. These leaders excelled in communication, selling the vision, and entrepreneurship, while also exhibiting several distinctive strengths. IT leaders were in the mid-range for most skills but lagged in selling the vision and global acumen. Yet, they were adept at leading teams, a promising sign of capability within this often-maligned function. Engineering and Operations were near-twins in their skill gaps—that is, communication, financial acumen, and executive disposition. For the core business skills of financial acumen and business savvy, leaders in Finance and Marketing/Advertising led all functions, while Engineering, Operations, and HR fell short comparatively. HR’s stand-out gaps were in business savvy, customer focus, entrepreneurship, and global acumen—in each of these skill areas, HR leaders demonstrated skills less effectively than at least five of the six other functions.

Four steps to a more inclusive talent planning process

With these varying skill profiles in mind—with no one function consistently mastering all aspects of effective, well-balanced leadership—the criticality of a cross-functional perspective on talent becomes clear. To put a process in place to make inclusive talent planning a reality, we recommend four actions:

  1. Gather the data needed for cross-functional comparability—diagnose the skills of leaders across functions, using tools that allow direct comparisons. Without using consistent tools, it will be difficult or impossible to tell whether differences between groups are due to variation in the data or variation in actual leader skills.
  2. Recognize the vastly varying skill development needs across functions as well as the risks of a learning model that neglects these distinctions. Target function-specific skill gaps first, and then integrate learning cohorts.
  3. If your data confirm the pervasive patterns we’ve seen across thousands of leaders, address risks to international expansion resulting from poor global acumen among talent (HR) and technology leaders. These groups deploy systems across borders, but too often they lack the awareness and knowledge to do so successfully.
  4. Design cross-functional assignments and informal mentoring to take advantage of function-based pockets of credibility and expertise (for example, pairing Marketing leaders with those from Engineering, or Sales leaders with Operations).

In the follow-up to this article, we’ll discuss the flip side of the talent planning coin—with accurate insight on the leader skill landscape across function based on the thousands of leaders in our research, how does this compare to actual feeder pools for higher-level leader roles? Which are the wells organizations go back to time and again to select top leaders? Neglecting talent based on a lack of awareness of their skills is troublesome enough; if there are signs that talented leaders are also being shut out of advancement opportunities merely because of their function, that’s a far greater problem.

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 Leadership 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: 26 Jan, 2016,
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