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Could Your Child Be a Future CEO?

DDI’s “Classroom to Boardroom” research explores at what age leadership potential can be spotted, and what it might mean for organizations (as well as parents)!
Could Your Child Be a Future CEO?

At the age of four, my niece was successfully leading us in an imaginative picnic game. By “us,” I mean her aunt, uncle, grandparents, and parents. None of us understood the rules and none of us, who had come that day to have lunch together as a family, intended to become embroiled in such play, but here we were. During a welcome pause in the action, we debated whether this toddler was being bossy or was, to the contrary, demonstrating great leadership skills.

I believed it was the latter. After all, she had a vision, gave clear direction, was motivated and enthused, got us all involved, and so forth. Viewed through that leadership lens, what she had set in motion was fairly impressive. This experience got me thinking. How soon can leadership potential be spotted in a person? And what might we learn about leadership potential during adolescence?

From Classroom to Boardroom, new research my DDI colleagues and I recently conducted and published, answers these questions with some curious findings that should provoke all organizations to think a little differently when nurturing young talent. Over 300 parents representing a global demographic, rated the frequency (on a five-point scale) with which their children—ages 2 to 22—demonstrate 10 leadership potential characteristics.

In this article, I will discuss three key points from the research, as they relate specifically to HR professionals and senior leaders:

1. Motivation to Lead Can Be Challenging to Maintain

Of course, motivation for leadership is critical to avoid a situation where highly technical individuals find themselves with responsibility for the work quality and development of others, but without any enthusiasm for the role—a terrifying situation that can result in team retention issues.

From surveying parents about the prevalence in their children of Motivation to Lead, which we define as displaying an upward ambition to influence or pursuing formal/informal leadership opportunities, we found an early enthusiasm for leadership among toddlers (4.2 out of 5.0). Given the not-uncommon scenario I described in the beginning of this article, this is perhaps, unsurprising; however, what did shock us was the rate at which this motivation dramatically falls away during middle school, to just 3.0 out of 5.0.

To understand why this drop occurs, we looked at the open-ended comments from parents, which cited the pressure for young teens to follow the status quo rather than stand out from the “pack.” Social media is confidently critiqued as an accelerating factor in this quest for middle school children to keep “in line” with social and peer norms. One survey participant summed this up succinctly: “My oldest daughter used to be totally comfortable in a leadership role but, as she got older, she became more of a conformist and now sometimes completely lacks self-confidence.”

Motivation To Lead: How Boys and Girls Stack Up En Route to Adulthood
The gender gap widens after high school

Motivation to Lead

For females, restoring initial levels of motivation for leadership is a greater challenge. Our data indicate that male enthusiasm for leadership climbs after high school and rises to 4.4 on the same 5.0 scale in college. Meanwhile, female motivation improves steadily, as well, but never reaches higher than 3.5—much below the level of their two- to five-year-old selves. This gender “gap” is concerning, especially as it continues to manifest itself as females mature and enter the workforce, creating a troubling lack of gender equity in many roles, especially the leadership ranks.

What can organizations do to address this gap?

  • Set a tone within the organization where leaders and non-leaders feel confident in taking risks and stepping away from the status quo.
  • Encourage senior leaders to share stories about projects or initiatives they were involved with that failed, and how they learned from them (and survived to tell the tale).
  • Ensure you have a balanced pipeline with senior female leaders who can serve as role models and inspire those at lower organizational levels.
  • Look for ways to encourage females to lead early in their careers. This might include apprenticeships or female-only leadership development cohort groups.

2. Opportunities for Leadership Aren’t Available to All

We surveyed parents about their children’s activities and looked at the impact these outside-of-the-classroom endeavours have on leadership potential. What we saw was a correlation between holding a leadership position in high school to which they were elected and the likelihood of demonstrating many of the indicators of potential, including Motivation to Lead, Receptivity to Feedback, Bringing Out the Best in People, and Navigating Ambiguity.

Unfortunately, our results also show that males attain 60 percent of these elected positions in high school. This may relate to the earlier finding about female motivation to target and win these roles, and be a reflection of the glass ceiling awaiting later life. What we do know is that in this critical pre-employment life stage, more males than females are being given “test drive” opportunities.

Elected Positions Are The Best Opportunity To Hone Leadership Skills
Nearly two-thirds of high school positions are occupied by males

Elected positions

Most children gain experience in elected leadership at high school.

How can organizations help to level the playing field for the females—and males—who may not have gained earlier leadership experience?
  • Identify equal opportunities for less “official” leadership positions earlier in the pipeline (e.g., department or division representatives), thus offering exposure to leadership expectations and providing a preview of leadership responsibilities before promotion.
  • Provide “tasters” of leadership roles by considering how simulations can be used to select people into frontline positions, or to identify specific development needs for those aspiring to step into leadership roles. Be prepared for the possibility that those who complete such leadership simulation tasters might decide to self-select out of promotion opportunities.
  • Promote a culture of feedback and request that senior leaders share examples of their own receptivity to feedback. This may include formal channels such as 360-degree surveys, or more ad-hoc feedback loops.
  • Navigating Ambiguity, which is extremely relevant for any modern organization, remains one of the toughest leadership skills to master. Give previews of leadership decisions to non-leaders so they can become confident balancing not having all relevant information with the need to make decisions quickly.

3. The Extracurricular “Stuff” Matters—And Employers Should Take Note

While organizations invest billions each year in leadership development programs, they regularly receive feedback that more traditional workshops are considered too linear for learners, especially learners from younger generations. DDI’s 2014│2015 Global Leadership Forecast highlighted how having a strong talent pipeline is a primary concern for CEOs. Similarly, the parents we surveyed for this research expressed similar anxieties: “I am interested in how to best guide my daughter,” or “My son appears to be a natural leader but I don’t know how to support him.”

These responses led us to look at children’s extracurricular activities to gain insights about leadership development beyond the classroom. We were able to identify relationships between certain after-school activities and important leadership behaviors:

  • Social clubs or associations = Authenticity and Navigates Ambiguity
  • Acting classes = Culture Fit and Receptivity to Feedback
  • Activities associated with money/commercialism = Passion for Results and Adaptability
  • Music classes = Culture Fit and Receptivity to Feedback
  • Team or individual sports = Motivation to Lead and Brings Out the Best in People

It’s clear from the survey that encouraging extracurricular activities, singularly or in combination, helps to nurture leadership potential. Similarly, extracurricular activities can progress some of the leadership nuances that are less “trainable,” such as fit for the role or having a passion for results.

How can organizations tap into past experience with extracurricular activities to hire and promote better leaders?

When reviewing candidate résumés, hiring managers should be encouraged to look beyond technical abilities and also consider the value of listed “hobbies and interests.”

Preview the leadership potential of non-management employees by encouraging them to work in teams on corporate/social responsibility projects.

Look beyond classroom training to a range of leadership development opportunities. Blended learning is critical to well-rounded development, with activities such as team assignments, peer coaching, and virtual cohorts contributing to future leaders’ development.

Leadership Potential Really Can Be Spotted Early

This data shows that leadership potential really can be identified at any age—so long as the person evaluating the child’s capability is close enough to provide ratings based on observed behaviors. It also confirms the existence of a core set of criteria by which to identify potential— criterion that transcends leadership levels. The universality of these criteria makes it easier to understand differences and similarities across your organization.

We can also see from the results that organizations can benefit from understanding this data and adjusting their practices to develop more well-rounded leaders.

What started as a curious question has resulted in some interesting ideas about how to nurture the next generation of leaders—in the workplace and at home. Organizations with ready-now leaders will have a competitive advantage over those whose pipeline is unprepared.

Get ahead of the curve and look out for C-suite potential early on—whether in the apprentice playground, company cafeteria, or interview room.

Verity Creedy is DDI’s European sales leader. She is currently on maternity leave, actively looking for signs of CEO potential in her five-month-old daughter.

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