Leadership and Relationships – The Importance of Fit

HRVendornews (here), highlights a new survey from Right Management and Chally Group that reports some interesting findings about the causes of corporate leadership failure. Among the more eye-catching figures are:

“Failure to build a team or relationships was singled out by the most (40%) survey respondents,” said Bram Lowsky, Executive Vice President of Right Management. “Second was mismatch for the corporate culture cited by 26%. Remarkably, not delivering acceptable results was named by just 11% of respondents as among the main three causes for failure”

This is all very interesting, not least because key drivers of leadership performance seem to be intangible factors rather than more quantifiable indicators of performance such as prior experience, education or aptitude and ability. Unfortunately for the majority of organisations, these seeming less valuable metrics are the ones that are most obvious or easiest to gather and have historically been given undue weight when making leadership decisions.

Maybe organisations could avoid the most damaging leadership mistakes by adopting a different approach? Moreover, perhaps the key to successful leadership development is not the identification of aptitude for certain tasks or responsibilities but a more open-ended and abstract idea about the role of "fit"? This would help explain one of the most perplexing problems of leadership, namely why some people are naturally able to achieve great things in one situation, whereas they cannot replicate that success in a different role or organisation. This brings to mind the fierce debate started by Bill Taylor over at HBR (here) about the value of corporate superstars. Maybe what these numbers are telling us is that it is better to have a leader that fits the organisation than it is to go out and hire an industry superstar?

Effective leadership, invariably involves situations where the leader is a good if not great fit with the underlying organisational culture. It is hard to argue that someone like Richard Branson would be as effective a corporate leader in an organisation that was inherently bureaucratic or risk averse. In other words great leadership is about the serendipitous confluence of personal characteristics and organisational context. In other words, the right person in the right place at the right time.

However, the report indicates that organisations still place significant emphasis on industry experience and track record.  This is borne out by the  numbers, with 73% of HR respondents citing track record as an indicator of leadership ability. However, I'd question this assumption. Is industry experience or track record a reliable indicator of performance in an unrelated or different role? Personally, I am sceptical. Of course leaders need to have credibility and ability, however beyond that I would argue that being able to develop strong and robust relationships with immediate colleagues and understand the culture that enables strategy to work with the culture is more important than in-depth industry knowledge or success in previous roles.

The fact that culture and relationships are intangible and highly complex inevitably leads to organisations focusing on more concrete or tangible. Why try to get to grips with the complex when there are easily available figures in black and white that everyone can understand? The good news for organisations is that with new tools and greater understanding of the intricacies of culture and relationships, it is now possible to place these key intangibles in a more systematic framework. Culture and relationships do not need to be implied but instead can be openly discussed and compared. There are now methods that can be used to take some of the guesswork or gut feel out of these big decisions. In fact organisations that want to get ahead should be looking at this issue in far greater breadth, the question of fit should not be confined to the upper echelons or the C-Suite, instead it should cascade down to all levels and inform the identification and selection of talent throughout. When making any decision about recruitment, promotion or team composition the question of "fit" should be uppermost in everyone's mind.


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