Today’s Toughest Challenge: Selecting Leaders to Lead into the Unknown

Written by: Nancy S. Ahlrichs

No organization wants to accidentally select as CEO the business equivalent of George Donner, who in 1847 led a group of settlers on a journey to California, only to have them become snowbound, starve, and turn to cannibalism. Yet selecting a new leader is one of the toughest challenges facing organizations today. Companies searching for new leaders often encounter a lack of promotion-ready internal candidates, so they look elsewhere, pinning their hopes on an outsider to lead through unchartered territory. Even in organizations with an heir-apparent, business realities may suddenly dictate new skills and competencies in order to address challenges presented by advanced technologies, global competition, new channels for selling, diverse employees, and more.

How can organizations get their arms around such an unexpected and amorphous assignment of hiring a new leader? Usually, the hiring guidance exists—it just needs to be assembled. If you’re looking for your next executive leader, here are tools you can look to:\

  • The latest strategic plan. With luck, the strategic plan has been updated within the last two years. If not, updating the plan may be the place to start so that there is a target for success. What skills will the new CEO need in order to lead the organization to achieve the new strategic goals?
  • Input from key stakeholders. Current and old customers, prospects, and senior executives can provide a good sense of changing marketplace needs. Be sure to include human resources as a stakeholder. Their knowledge of the changing talent marketplace can be useful.
  • Executive competencies and core competencies. The organization must develop these—or update them if they already exist—to greatly enhance hiring. Core competencies apply to all employees at all levels and serve to differentiate the organization from its competitors. Executive competencies apply to the C-suite and spell out the skills sets and behaviors of the organization’s senior leadership.
  • Behavioral interview questions based on the competencies and target experiences. During the interview process, questions phrased to draw out actual experiences instead of assumptions about future actions will more effectively separate the true potential leaders from the posers.
  • Due diligence when checking references. Asking skills-based questions of references is more likely to provide a truer picture of future behaviors if the candidate is selected. The past truly is the best predictor of the future.

Once the new leader is selected, a careful onboarding process will considerably enhance time to productivity. In addition to learning about products and services, meeting key stakeholders, and spending time meeting all levels of employees in the organization, the new leader may need:

  • Coaching to aid assimilation. Even the most skilled leader can use a sounding board and guide when taking the helm from either a long-term successful leader or a short-term failed leader. The path forward is often unmapped, but as we all know, culture eats strategy for breakfast. The best leader with the best strategy may need assistance with implementation to prevent the culture from being a barrier.
  • A retreat or other leadership development opportunity with his or her new team. Many organizations, in anticipation of the leadership team needing to change direction or otherwise look at the organization with fresh eyes, use a shared leadership development experience—often with an opportunity for the new team to work on a significant business issue—as a bonding and level-setting experience. It also helps to push the organization forward with a quick win. New relationships must form with the new leader and among the existing leaders for the organization to work well together.

With the pending retirements of Baby Boomers, more organizations must prepare for new leadership. Even if considering internal candidates, it is wise to adopt a comprehensive approach so that the best possible candidate may be selected and succeed. If not, don’t be surprised to find you and your colleagues stuck in deep snow and growing very, very hungry.

Nancy S. Ahlrichs is a business development consultant at FlashPoint, where she interacts with human resource professionals, executives, and business owners in order to understand their organizational needs. She collaborates with our other team members to develop appropriate consulting solutions and supports prospects throughout the sales process.