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Early Experiences

Global Leadership Forecast 2018

Want to Be a Leader?:

Get an Early Start

Richard Wellins

“From the experiences of the past, we learn instructive lessons for the future.” So said John Quincy Adams, the sixth U.S. president, during his inaugural address. For the past few decades, we’ve talked about the degree to which experiences shape leadership behavior. In Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015, we showed the specific types of job experiences that shape leadership behavior. Experiences that impact a leader’s career can occur well before a promotion to leadership or before that person enters the workforce. This finding examines earlier life experiences, an area not previously addressed in our research.

The Earlier, the Better

The figure below shows the frequency of seven leadership experiences and motivations. An early motivation to lead plays a significant role in a person’s decision to pursue a leadership position. Slightly more than three of four leaders surveyed had leadership ambitions early in their life or working careers. This finding is profound, given our sample size. Two early life experiences may especially influence the motivation to lead:

  • Parents as working leader role models. Four of 10 leaders had parents who held leadership jobs.
  • An elected or early volunteer leadership position. Nearly two-thirds of our sample held such a position (for example, club president or sports team captain) long before they entered the workforce.
Want to Be a Leader?

These findings are supported by our recently completed study with The Conference Board, DDI, and RW2 Enterprises on Millennial leaders* that involved interviewing leaders at all levels in several Fortune 500 companies about experiences that shaped them. One leader cited her parents’ role in providing lessons in how people should be treated, and noted how this helped mold her character. Another respondent recalled a leadership position in school government.

Parents as leaders seem to have a stronger influence on their children becoming leaders than does either having a formal mentor or being a mentor. That said, mentorship nonetheless continues to provide considerable value to developing leaders. The lower percentage (14 percent) of involvement in family-run business might well trace to lack of opportunity rather than the value of the experience itself.

Finally, international assignments can occur anytime during a leader’s work life. Just over one in four leaders completed at least one international assignment. This is a surprising gap given the rising number of multinationals.

There was a small gender difference for two of the early experience values. Female leaders were more likely than male leaders to have had parents in a leadership role. Males, on the other hand, had more of an opportunity to serve in a pre-career leadership role. Perhaps gender role modeling becomes more critical for females in a male-dominated leadership work environment. And, opportunities to lead may be less available to females before they enter the workforce.

Does It Make a Difference?

Early experiences with the greatest impactThis figure shows the links between previous experiences, motivations, and outcome variables, with a check mark indicating a positive relationship. We looked at leadership engagement and retention, leadership self-confidence (a leader’s perception of his or her own abilities versus those of peers), number of promotions, and designation as a high-potential individual. Both leadership self-confidence and high-potential status have strong relationships.

We also asked all leaders if they felt prepared to deal with nine challenges associated with working in a complex working environment. Examples of survey items included operating in a digital environment, anticipating/reacting to speed of change, and acting decisively without clear direction. While not universal across all items, leaders are better prepared to perform in today’s complex work environment when they’ve had some of the pre-career experiences.

* Ray, R.L., Sinar, E., Wellins, R., Wright, E., Popiela, A., Ye, A., & Paese, M. (2017, January), Divergent Views/Common Ground: The Leadership Perspectives of C-Suite Executives and Millennial Leaders, New York, The Conference Board.

Where to Start
  • Consider previous experiences as you make leadership selection and placement decisions.
  • Motivation to lead is essential and often a reason many new leaders are happy to return to a role as individual contributor. Instruments and interview methods exist that accurately assess motivation to lead.
How to Excel + Differentiate
  • Seek opportunities to place employees in informal leadership experiences before they apply for or are asked to fill a formal leadership role.
  • Explore the use of biodata to get a better read on an individual’s probability of success as a leader. Artificial intelligence (AI) soon will play a larger role in examining prework and work variables in predicting leadership success.
  • Like marketing, IT, or any other profession, think of leadership as a profession. Never underestimate the impact and influence you can have on your children or the younger generation in encouraging them to consider leadership roles inside and outside the work place.
Talk to an Expert: Early Experiences
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