At the Greensboro, NC airport, for only $5.00, Horace will heal your shoes and provide some personalized coaching on the topic of your choice. My choice was politics and business, seeing as we just elected a new president and the economy is in the pits. Horace was willing to be both encouraging about my political choices (happily they agreed with his) and interested in exploring the finer points of the impact of political leadership on business climate.

Part of what instigated this coaching session was the surprising (to me and to Horace) information on the front page of the “Money” section of USA Today that stock prices have done better under Democrats than Republicans over the last 55 years. Especially interesting has been the fact that in the first year following the election of a Republican stock prices average a drop of almost 2% and following the election of a Democrat they average an increase of almost 10% (9.7%).

Horace promised to use this information to gently tweak his Republican clients, but it got me thinking about how misleading stereotypes can be. And to the extent that stereotypes may shape choices leaders make, how seriously they can sabotage otherwise brilliant people.

This affects succession planning and talent management generally in pernicious ways. Studies stretching over the last four decades have consistently shown that we select or nominate for selection people who are like us. While that may be a useful strategy when there is little change in the marketplace, where can you find business strategies that work in rapidly churning economic environments? Successful organizations have the capability to develop and promote leaders who are right for the next turn, not the last.

I was in the audience at a conference several years ago in which a consulting firm reported on its work with the top industrial leaders of an emerging Asian economy. They proudly discussed their process for generating a competency matrix for the next generation of corporate leaders by surveying these leaders on what would make for success. In the results it was abundantly clear that they had described their own considerable strengths, but not what the new leaders would need to be like. An example was the absolute absence of any orientation toward innovation or entrepreneurial skill, in spite of (or because) the nation was moving toward a true market economy. A generation of industrial giants reared on economic dynasties could not be expected to recognize that the success of the next generation would require an altogether different mix of competencies. This is the greatest challenge imaginable: creating systems for preparing the next generation of leaders for general management. It is dauntingly difficult to recognize that my skills are not the perfect match for what comes next.

As I sat in his chair, Horace happily greeted the procession of suits and uniforms who streamed by his stand. He told me about his market research (“It’s usually slow on Wednesdays. More people fly on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.”) and I watched his customer development process (“Hey, how’re you doing?”). He had determined that a combination of authenticity and good humor were the key strategic elements for building his business (seeing the sad state of my own shoes, he promised “I can heal those for you” with a reassuring smile). Tomorrow’s successful leaders will accurately read the news, challenge their own prejudices, assume nothing, and win in markets the pundits predict and those they don’t. They’ll also have very attractive shoes.

Your well-shod friend,

Doug

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