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Beware an attack of clone bosses

Lesley Uren, head of PA Consulting Group's talent management practice, is extensively quoted in an article in The Sunday Times. The article looks at a tendency of some chief executives, as identified in PA’s report ‘The Future is Fluid’, to want their high-potential staff to take the same route to success that they did. 

The article picks up on some of the key findings of PA’s report, according to which “almost 70% of company bosses think their most talented executives should follow the same development path that they did.” 

Lesley explains the dangers of this approach for chief executives: “What they do not realise is that there are possible significant downsides with this approach. It assumes that all the organisation needs to succeed is one type of leadership and a homogenous set of skills . . . and you miss people who achieve in different ways.

Lesley describes how a chief executive who thought that being handed a big promotion to a sink-or-swim job “two sizes too large” was what made him into a successful leader will then expect his high-potential managers to take on similar challenges. By contrast, one who found her calling while working in a series of broadening roles at one company will prefer to promote people internally rather than appointing outsiders. 

She gives another specific example, whereby one chief executive told her that one of their career-defining jobs meant he had to be willing to drop everything when his phone rang, day or night. Lesley says: “And that is the way he then thinks his people need to be; that they need to love being totally absorbed in the business, the immersion.” 

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Lesley also discusses how every business requires a range of skills and personality types and that developing potential in only one way will exclude valuable people: “It assumes that everyone grows the same way and learns the same way, and it means that there is a big risk that you will miss out on other types of talent.”  

Lesley goes on to point out that this approach also has potential to cause problems with diversity and inclusion as it may inadvertently exclude working mothers from development opportunities, for example. Lesley says: “There is the risk that they won’t be able to develop or grow because they won’t be able to see alternatives to their own way of doing things.” 

Later in the article Lesley talks about alternative approaches to talent management and explains that chief executives who do not expect others to follow their path will often look at their company’s strategy and its position in the market before they start to think about talent development. According to Lesley, their starting position is what the company needs, not their own experience.

Finally, Lesley talks about how chief executives can overcome an unconscious bias towards the route they took. She says: “All you have to ask yourself is, ‘How else could I develop this person?’ That will start you thinking about things other than the obvious.”

She concludes: “One simple trigger question could be a way of breaking the pattern.”

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