Why Some Leaders Are Overlooked And Left Behind

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One night, as I was driving home from a vacation with my family, one of my children needed a bathroom break. I pulled into a gas station and everyone piled out of the car. After a short break, I called the children to get back in the car, and we quickly took off down the road. Within a short time, my wife looked up and said, "Where is Rachel?" Panic ensued along with a quick exit to turn around and go back on the freeway. Even though we noticed her absence very quickly, it still took us 15 minutes to return and rescue our traumatized teenage daughter. Luckily, we found her angrily waiting in the gas station. Whenever there is a discussion about which child is the least favorite, inevitably, this story trumps everything else as proof this child deserves pity. Many families have similar stories, and many employees can also relate to the feeling of being left behind.

We had a dataset of 5,000 leaders from a large company that rated all of their leaders on their potential (high, medium, and low). We were able to show that the 360-assessment data we had on their leaders was an excellent predictor of their effectiveness. Leaders that were rated high on their 360-assessment also ranked high on the level of employee engagement of their direct reports. We found they had lower turnover and a greater percentage of people in their team who were highly committed and willing to give extra effort. Other studies, using the same assessments, have predicted higher profitability, sales, and customer satisfaction.

But there was one strange group that stood out.

We identified a group of leaders who had the lowest rating on potential but were in the top quartile on their 360-degree assessments. These leaders were being left behind. 

Why were these leaders left behind?

When we looked through the demographics, we found these leaders tended to be older than the leaders who were not left behind. This group of forgotten leaders also had a higher percentage of men and were more likely to be in sales, customer service, and manufacturing functions.

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We also found their primary and secondary managers tended to rate them much more negatively than their peers, direct reports, and other raters. It started to look like there could have been some age or other bias from the manager that caused the lower ratings.

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Was there something that these leaders were doing that caused them to be overlooked?

We compared this group to the group that had a high potential rating and had high 360-degree results. We computed t-test to identify any competencies that were significantly different.

In the graph below, we show the results based on 16 differentiating competencies. It is interesting that the low potential/high 360 assessment group were rated more negatively on six competencies but more positively on ten competencies. Only one competency was statistically significantly different, Drives for Results. When we looked at ratings from over 300,000 managers about which competency they think is most important, the number one answer was, Drives for Results. Note that Relationship Building showed the largest positive difference for the low potential/high 360 assessment group, but some competencies matter more to some people than others. When a leader is struggling to deliver on their commitments, that is always a problem. Even though the leaders have excellent relationships, their inability to deliver results ends up overshadowing their ability to relate well with others.

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The Moral to the Story

There are two very important morals to this blog. First, never abandon your children at gas stations. They will always remember it—and so will you. Being left behind in anything in life with friends, families or careers is hard and painful to experience. Second, if you want to be considered a high potential leader, bring home the bacon. Deliver on your commitments.

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I am the founder of two leadership development firms, Novations and Zenger Folkman. Through the years I’ve developed a unique, proven method to improve organizations an

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