Are your “high performing” managers good leaders?

Determining leadership potential must include more than just an assessment of performance ratings, writes Jennie Walker

High performer is a popular term used in performance management and succession planning, but what it means and how it is measured can vary widely among organisations. What does it mean to be a high performer in your organisation? As a HR leader, this is an important question to reflect upon, because in all likelihood it is the very HR systems and programs that you manage that largely determine who is identified.

If your organisation has a succession plan, these high performers also will tend to be the ones in line for important leadership roles. This means that high performers should be evaluated in terms of their leadership – how they produce results, not just the act of producing results. This places great responsibility on HR to gather data that is both reliable and holistic.

What is a high performer?
According to Bersin by Deloitte, “a high performer is an employee who is a key contributor, demonstrates high performance, is capable of a lateral move, may be qualified for a broader role within the same profession and has reached the potential to move ‘upward’ in a management capacity.”

Typically, contributions and high performance are measured by performance ratings. Provided that performance management tools are effectively designed, they can provide a good starting point for assessment. However, quantitative data alone will not produce a complete picture of performance.

For example, a manager may score highly on leadership if that metric is based on employees producing desired results. When interviewing those employees to explore the actual experience of this manager’s leadership, though, we may find that the manager has poor employee relations.

Employees may be compliant and are only producing results out of fear – fear of poor treatment or fear of losing their jobs. Clearly, this is not sustainable or healthy for the organisation. This also is not the kind of leadership that most organisations embrace today.

Qualitative data, whether it is through interviews, surveys or assessments, helps to provide this kind of context and depth to numerical ratings. This is particularly important in large and geographically dispersed organisations, where HR leaders and executive managers who are making important talent management decisions may be too far removed from the manager’s operation to see the leadership approach first-hand.

Assessing high performance
There are several approaches to gathering qualitative data on leadership, including one-to-one interviews with people who work with the person being assessed, on-the-job observation, employee engagement surveys, and well-designed simulations and assessment centres.

One methodical way to gather information on a manager’s current leadership reputation is through a 360-degree assessment. It provides qualitative data from several angles, including the person’s immediate supervisor, colleagues, direct reports, and even business partners such as vendors or clients.

Reputation is how others view and experience that person in the context of the workplace, and it is a good predictor of performance, according to renowned industrial and organisational psychologist Dr Robert Hogan. It is a much better predictor of performance than identity alone. Identity is how a person views himself or herself.

For example, when interviewing a manager for employment or promotion, it is common to ask that person to describe his or her leadership approach – we are in effect asking that person to describe his or her leadership identity.

Dr Hogan’s research shows that that person’s self-description, no matter how many examples they may provide, is not a reliable predictor of future performance. It is imperative to understand the experience others have working with this person to evaluate current leadership reputation and to begin to assess leadership potential.

High performance and high potential
Research cautions us against equating high performance with high potential. For those of you using the popular “9 Box” method for succession planning, where an employee is assessed for both performance and potential, you already know that many high performers are not necessarily ready or suited for promotion into higher level leadership roles.

A study by the Corporate Leadership Council in 2011, based on 11,000 managers and employees, concluded that less than 20 per cent of high performers had the potential for promotion. Many individuals who can be classified as a “high performer” are experts in their fields who do not wish to manage others or are not yet ready to do so. For those who do have the desire and potential to move into higher leadership roles, it is possible to develop leadership reputation through assessment, reflection and concerted effort.

6 tips for developing a strong leadership reputation

  1. Assess your current reputation as a leader using a 360-degree assessment tool, by asking colleagues and supervisors for feedback, and/or by hiring a personal leadership coach.
  2. Decide what reputation you aspire to by reflecting on which leaders resonate with you and identifying the specific behaviours and qualities that you would like to adopt from them.
  3. Create a personal vision board with images and words that keep you focused and motivated daily on the behaviours you are working to build.
  4. Surround yourself with leaders who already have strong reputations so you can learn from them.
  5. Practise your leadership by being active in social, professional and philanthropic organisations.
  6. Actively manage your leadership reputation as a personal brand by regularly reflecting on the impact that you have on others and the image that you convey through your social media presence.