Managing Director’s Inbox

September 2nd, 2014  | 

Published in Leadership

What’s your process for identifying your next generation of leaders?

More specifically, how do you determine who among your rising stars has what it takes to make the difficult decisions awaiting them as their responsibility within your organization grows?

If you believe your process for gaining insights into your stars can improve, learn how one successful company does it.

Separating Pretenders from Contenders

When the sanitation business owned by Rick Kimbrell’s family was purchased in 2000 by DeLaval, Sweden’s leading producer of dairy and farming machinery, Rick quickly was identified as an up-and-comer. He was among 24 junior executives selected from more than 24,000 employees worldwide who were invited to Stockholm for interviews, testing and profiling.

Rick is a member of one of my Vistage advisory boards and he shared the process DeLaval used with its most promising executives to gain insight into their ability to think and act like a leader:

Day 1

  • Complete 4 – 5 problem-solving exercises.
  • Review a brief case study; prepare an action plan.
  • Present your action plan to a board member, HR exec and business psychologist.

Day 2

  • Full day of psychological profiling.

Day 3

  • Each candidate is taken to a small, empty office at 7 a.m.
  • In the room there is a tablet of paper, two pencils, two pens, a calculator and a calendar; there is no computer, no Internet connection and no phone.
  • A high-ranking manager’s inbox has been simulated with identical documents for each of the 24 candidates, including correspondence, financial reports, the firm’s current marketing plan and numerous memos.
  • Instructions:  “You’ve just been named Managing Director. Work the in-box. You have five hours. You are free to leave at lunch for the remainder of the day.”

Day 4

  • Each candidate is brought into a room with five people, including the three people from Day 1 plus the CEO of North America and the worldwide CEO.
  • There is a full morning of questions asked by the five people of the candidate.
  • No grade is given. Each candidate is free to leave at lunch and do as they please.

Most small- and mid-sized companies don’t have the time, money and energy to devote a full week to testing their rising stars – apart from the daily tests these high-performers get on the job.

But the Day 3 exercise is one component of DeLaval’s process that any company of any size can adapt for use with its most promising stars as well as applicants for senior-level positions.

In our firm, for example, we invited the strongest applicants to provide their perspective on three scenarios our firm had addressed for our clients.  The applicants were taken to an empty office with no phone and no Internet connection and given two hours to complete the exercise.

This approach separated the pretenders from the contenders.

Learning from Deming

The DeLaval process is one W. Edwards Deming would applaud.

Deming, of course, is the statistician, engineer and management consultant who helped Japan leap-frog America in quality after World War II.  Deming pioneered the concept of continuous improvement, and he was a champion of systems and process.  “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process,” said Deming, “you don’t know what you’re doing.

Deming’s process for any leader seeking to make effective use of their time is consistent with the Day 3 exercise Rick Kimbrell and others tackled. Deming believed leaders should organize their in-box in the following manner:

  1. Decisions only you can make should be dealt with immediately.
  2. Activities and decisions others can make should be delegated.
  3. Journals, magazines and less urgent information should be bundled for reading outside the office.
  4. Trash.
  5. Items to be held for 30 days without any investment of time; if you are not asked about any of these items after 30 days, trash them.

Rick Kimbrell traveled to Stockholm with another rising star, and after Day 3, Rick and his colleague were comparing notes.

Rick’s colleague was unable to make it through the in-box while Rick worked to the bottom then had time to review several key decisions before the exercise was halted.

“Gosh,” said Rick’s colleague, “there were a lot of financials with a variety of accounting issues that needed to be addressed. It took me most of the morning to work through those. How did you do it?”

“Simple,” replied Rick, “I delegated it.”

The ability to understand what only you can do and what others can do for you is one of the qualities that separates great leaders from great managers.

Are you doing the work of your managers?

About the Author: Greg Bustin advises leaders of some of the world’s most admired companies, and he’s dedicated a career to working with CEOs and the leadership teams of hundreds of companies in a range of industries. He’s facilitated more than 200 strategic planning sessions, and he’s delivered more than 500 keynotes and workshops on five continents. His fifth leadership book—How Leaders Decide: A Timeless Guide to Making Tough Choices—examines 52 of history’s greatest triumphs and tragedies and debuted in April as the #1 new historical reference book on Amazon.

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