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Recently, 5,000 psychologists, myself included, met to focus on discussions around developing leadership talent. If you can imagine a time before COVID-19 and the banning of in-person gatherings, consider 120,000 hours of meetings, reports and panel discussions. Was there one takeaway? Yes. There was a unanimous, well-modulated roar of agreement on the need for “rigor.”

What does that mean? It means we need to make accurate measurement a requirement of leadership development. The fact that companies get high-potential leadership choices wrong more than 80% of the time drives us batty. If you want to improve on that result, ignore intuition and ask these four questions, the four questions:

  1. Are we clear about the fact that we require excellence?
  2. How do we define excellence?
  3. What are we doing to enable excellence?
  4. How do we reward excellence?

Not sure what the answers are? Unless you’re a mind reader, you can’t be. Survey different levels in your organization and compare the results. What do you see? A resounding “yes”? More likely, you’ll get a resounding “sort of.”

To understand why, look the answers to question two. Are they closely aligned or dispersed? Organization leaders must clearly define excellence for every key role. “Not now” is the common response. But, if not now, when? What value do you put on excellent performance? What is the cost of half your workforce operating at 80% efficiency because they don’t exactly know what excellence is supposed to look like?

Rigorously defining excellence is basic to enabling people to deliver it. When leaders require excellence and hold people accountable, they get it. Maybe, in some respects at least, excellence looks different in different areas.

Next, ask question three. If no one measures excellence, how does anyone know what you’re doing to enable it? They don’t. Financials are a fuzzy trailing indicator. Define excellence in a way that provides a meaningful metric. Excellence might be universal in some areas like ethics and personal values, such as respect. “We don’t innovate our ethics” might be a clear, consistent message.

It’s important to connect excellence and people’s work with an organization’s purpose. Ask, what does each department or team do that enables success? Then, select metrics that define excellence as results-oriented as possible; more deals, more widgets, more accurate, whatever truly demonstrates success. Take the accounting department, for example: No company can survive without accurate numbers. If the numbers aren’t accurate, we fail. If accounting is late, we hurt. What enables or interferes with getting good numbers? How well do different areas collaborate with accounting to support the need for timely, accurate numbers? Answers like “not so well” or “could be better” highlight opportunities.

Let’s also consider a print shop. Say a company prints customer-billing invoices for six electric utilities. Who cares if the regularly scheduled maintenance is on time for equipment running non-priority jobs, when high-priority jobs are held up? The manager who failed to ensure free-flowing communication between the production and maintenance teams has guaranteed excellence would not be attained. Relevant metrics quickly reveal paths for performance improvement. Is deciding what to measure difficult? Ask knowledgeable people who are doing the work. Collaboration enables excellence. Smart leaders encourage managers to share insights on what’s working and what isn’t. Challenge developing leaders with problem solving.

Finally, when you have answers to the first three questions, ask the fourth again. Then, when leadership reviews, acknowledges and applauds accurate, ongoing measurement, real results improve … and so does innovation.

Effective leaders tweak rewards, including different forms of compensation, so that incentives resulting from shared effort are distributed among those making the effort. They also explain it in terms of the shared contribution to excellent results.

“Rigor” in talent development is not about being tough for tough’s sake. It is brought about by being thoughtful and intentional. In this context “rigorous” means focusing on quality – not just the quality of the product or service but the quality of the environment where it is created. Rigor means defining the qualities that produce an excellent result and measuring progress.

Leadership Development: Intuition in the way?

Often potential leaders are selected based on intuition. Intuition-based decision making is easier than rigorous decision making. Nobel physicist Richard Feynman was intuitive about math, and arguably the most talented physicist who ever lived. He would intuit a principle and then do the math to demonstrate its veracity. He could do the math. Most of us aren’t math whizzes.

For the rest of us mortals, intuition is more likely to hinder leadership development rather than help. We use intuition to save time, and sometimes it does. But as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman repeatedly demonstrates in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” intuition is most often our short cut to the wrong answer. When it comes to leadership development the stakes are high. Do the math.

Purchase Kahneman’s book on here.

Drew Suss is the practice leader at Truebridge Partners, LLC., supporting leaders in the development space in their goal to be more effective.