Article: The up-hill climb

Employee Relations

The up-hill climb

Current capabilities alone are poor predictors of future success in corporate careers or, for that matter, in any forecast of human potential being realised. What are the alternatives for selecting and developing leaders?
The up-hill climb

Climin’ up, Climin’ up, till I’m holding the clouds in my hands,
Climin’ up, Climin’ up, till the world is below where I stand;
Climin’ up to the land that I know must lie over that mountain,
Wall of wonder, what lies behind you?
Climin’ up, Climin’ up, for my heart is away in that land.1

You have reached the end of a gruelling process of selection for your exclusive managerial entry cadre. The number to be selected is small and you have to choose between two virtually matched contenders. It’s a real case of 'all else being equal' so shouldn’t the position go to the slightly better polished candidate who has had the benefit of a more genteel upbringing? No, it shouldn’t. The matter bears some more probing but, if it turns out that the less polished person has battled greater odds to display the same level of attainment, s/he should edge out the silver spooner. If this seems wrong-headed, think of a 400-metre race where two runners breast the tape almost simultaneously. If you found that one of the two had to traverse a steep, uphill track, wouldn’t you consider her the better athlete? Is there any reason to judge people running the career race differently?

If we are interested in how candidates will perform as future leaders a momentary frozen frame is insufficient. Yet, most of our sophisticated selection tools focus on present capabilities. Even when there is a glance at the past, it is to confirm that achievement has been a constant companion rather than to establish the handicaps the person has overcome. 

The need for this additional perspective should now be obvious. What may not be immediately apparent are the radical improvements it can deliver in the manner we choose, progress and CEO-levate people. We shall consider each of these in turn. 

HEAL champions

It would appear the personal interview, particularly in its competence-based version, would be ideally suited to give selectors a glimpse into a person’s past rate of progress. The possibility certainly exists but such past checks are most often utilized to substantiate the veracity of the competency claims made by the candidate, through instances where that capability may have been demonstrated earlier. Useful as this verification is, it gives us no idea of the leaps (or plodding progress) made by the individual, the learning tricks s/he mastered, the catapulting mentors s/he tagged or, indeed, the demons s/he saddled to make the vertiginous climb a reality. Most of the selection processes we use currently are, by and large, blind to the information we need for extrapolating future progress from past climbing. We can cure this myopia by redesigning the information blanks, the selection tests and the interviews we use for recruitment.  

I was intrigued to learn that a leading university in India used to ask applicants to fill out a detailed questionnaire providing details of the location the individual was born and brought up, the natural or other calamities the family may have faced, the income and education of the parents and so on. Of course, in that case it was to be used for their affirmative action programme to bring otherwise unsuccessful candidates above the minimum threshold and make entry possible for those who had experienced explicit physical or social disadvantage. In the corporate context, a suitably refined and scorable questionnaire could be used to heft people (who are well above the minimum) higher in the ranking order because of the handicaps they had overcome and the steeper learning slope they had to climb to reach that point. It strikes me that such an instrument need not be re-invented by each corporate. There is a good case for a few job-family-specific questionnaires to be standardized on an all-India basis through employer associations or as an entrepreneurial opportunity.

While giving job aspirants the benefit of this handicap, however, it would be necessary to establish, that their accelerated climbing velocity was not fortuitous or faked. To do so, the drives and methods that permitted these disadvantaged individuals to FLY need to be checked and we need to confirm that the finally chosen candidates have:

  • Fearlessness that is just a hair short of recklessness in aiming high. This doesn’t mean being blind to the threats posed by malevolent fate or envious competitors but, unless reach continually exceeds what’s commonsensically graspable, growth is likely to flatten out fast. Twinges of the imposter syndrome 2 are inevitable for such upstarts and it is worth confirming that the individuals finally selected have the ability to constructively convert their anxieties into fanatical learning and binding to powerful mentors (see the next two points).
  • Learning with ingenuity through shortcuts that permit knowledge and skills to be acquired even from unconventional sources. We need to find the perennial SWOTter. Not a person mugging lessons but one who is constantly evaluating personal Strengths and Weaknesses to extract the most from learning Opportunities and Threats as they arise.
  • Yoking ability to mentors and allies through catching the eyes of distant but powerful mentors and forming alliances with consequential laterals. The process needs to be repeated for each higher level of recognition.  

In combination, the disadvantage listing questionnaire and the three FLY checks provide us with a Handicap Equalizing Assessment of Leadership or HEAL. They can jointly correct our selection short-sightedness.  

Craft leaders

Having steep-slope climbers within the firm is only the first step to shaping future leaders. An earlier column  bewailed the fact that great leaders are rare. 3  Now we have an opportunity to increase the probability of grooming them. Of course, truly great leaders will never be numerous. That is why 'crafting' is a far more apt metaphor for aiding individual careers and development than the mass production image the frequently used 'factory' analogy throws up.

Let’s start with some ground rules for our internal slope-scaping:

  • The primary rule for the development of the fittest is that the counter needs to be reset at every stage of significant progression. Naturally, this also applies to the HEAL-helped candidates we have brought on board. If their slope climbing muscles have been as developed as our selection predicted, they should be able to power ahead at each barrier and rock-face. More importantly, it also applies to the 'heaven-born' elites (be they in the civil services or their equivalent 'listers' in the private sector) who otherwise think they have a path to Valhalla vouchsafed the day they join (without the unwelcome requirement of being killed in battle along the way).
  • Such competition demands extreme selectivity. Consequently, this elaborate process yields (and its rules and criteria apply to) very few people in the whole organisation. Another implication is that special advantages of all kinds – including those based on educational qualifications, entry-points and relationships – must be ruled out. An organisation that needs yester-year stamps of ivy-league approval despite having the individuals under observation for years has no assessment mechanism worth the name and had best reconcile itself to mediocre insiders and marauding outsiders alternating in its top roles.
  • The final rule is somewhat paradoxical after the fierce competition implied in the previous one but some thought will make its need apparent. This rule disadvantages people who seek to enhance their brilliance by eclipsing or dousing the light of their competitors. Conversely, those who can strike alliances and team well without losing their individuality and edginess are to be favoured. 

Within this rule framework it should not be difficult for a custom-designed fast-track scheme to identify and choose for Fearlessness, Learning-ingenuity and Yoking to mentors / allies. A previous column has dealt with the design of fast-track programmes in some detail and its message need not be repeated here. 4 What was perhaps not sufficiently highlighted was that no process can substitute the critical quality of being spotted out of the multitude by a powerful mentor. Yet, only such a booster can bring a career to lift-off velocity and increase the possibility of igniting yet more powerful mentor-engines serially, thereby taking a career to stratospheric heights. "Mentoring is as essential to becoming a potent [leader] as a mother is to being born. In fact, I do not know of a single successful [high-flier] who hasn’t had a powerful and positively predisposed mentor." 5

A sophisticated and rigorous fast-track mining process is necessary but not sufficient for finding and polishing great leader gems. The additional requirement is a culture of self-reliance in thought and action running throughout the organisation. In a way, the pre-liberalization days of foreign exchange paucity forced this choice on organisations that were driven by a growth mindset while being unwilling to compromise on quality. Of course, some companies found it easier to stagnate or make antiquated products that the choiceless Indian customer had to buy. The Telco (now Tata Motors) in which I was privileged to spend almost two decades before liberalization, was driven on the path of indigenous innovation by Sumant Moolgaokar. The lack of overseas expertise or equipment was never permitted to be a deterrent or excuse. Machine-tools and dies were produced on a heretofore unimagined scale for India and know-how and processes in fields as diverse as supplier development, human resources or (the then fledgling) computer systems had to be built here. Commercial vehicles were exported (despite the huge domestic demand) in markets where the best in the world competed, to ensure the indigenous emphasis had not rendered Telco’s products uncompetitive. Perhaps it’s even more difficult to do this today when so many intensively marketed solutions are temptingly available off the shelf. If there’s one thing Covid as well as the geo-political uncertainties of recent years should have taught us, however, it is that globalization is not an unmixed or uninterruptable blessing and core competencies built on perennially borrowed technology are a house of straw waiting for a black wolf (I think swans have had their share of blame by now) to blow it down.   

Reverse race uphill

Assuming our efforts at HEAL selection and backpack-burdened development have met success, our hand-picked leaders must transition, mid-career, to inversing the FLY challenges they have spent half a lifetime mastering. They are also at more advanced ages when conventional wisdom has them less flexible and more cognito-sclerotically challenged. Well, if elephants can be taught to dance, surely middle-agers can learn to FLY differently: with Fear, Learning-transmission and Yoking to the next generation for pulling up successors. 

"I believe in the value of paranoia. Business success contains the seeds of its own destruction. The more successful you are, the more people want a chunk of your business and then another chunk and then another until there is nothing left." 6  What Andy Grove wrote about businesses in his best-seller, 'Only the Paranoid Survive', is equally true of careers at the corporate apex. Another brilliant expatriate from Hungary made essentially the same point in explaining why so many geniuses seemed to emerge from one small region of the country: "Johnny [John von Neumann] used to say that it was a coincidence of some cultural factors which he could not make precise: an external pressure on the whole society of this part of Central Europe, a feeling of extreme insecurity in the individuals, and the necessity to produce the unusual or else face extinction."7  When leaders reach the top-most rungs, some of them hope that they can catch their breath and admire the view. The problem is that others, either climbing the ladder from underneath or from the next rooftop, consider themselves justified in flipping complacent leaders off their perches. Great leaders need to remain scared. In fact, paranoid.  

The quest for learning is never-ending – especially for the paranoid. One of the key criteria for a top leader must be, however, that the flow of knowledge to others must exceed the inflow. As the tide of job insecurity reaches ever higher levels, the desire to hoard learning increases at an even faster rate. The greatest contribution organisations can make to ensure the transmission of (especially tacit) knowledge from generation to generation is to break the perceived causal link between 'make yourself dispensable' and 'get dispensed'! Nothing, however, can substitute the leader’s own commitment to pay back the future for the favours received from fortune in the past. It is the kind of repayment commitment contained in an earlier column (though that was focused on HR leaders): "I shall not forget the debt and respect I owe to those who have taught me and freely pass on the best of my learnings to those who work with me… I shall continue the process of learning as well as developing myself and others throughout my professional career."8

Last and most difficult is to reverse the vector of yoked mentoring. The corporate chieftain must return (not just the knowledge and skills just reviewed) but the integrated mentoring that catapults an individual to becoming a well-rounded leader. This, far more arduous task, requires picking the worthiest (not always the most obvious) choice and giving the benefit of accelerated growth, guidance through access and protection from jealous rivals. Some of the greatest leaders I have known failed in this 'agnipariksha'. The consequence then was that all the talent that had been distilled internally, with stupendous effort and care, was spilt to no purpose and the fortunes of the firms were subjected to the risky outcome of the selection die. As we have seen in earlier columns, that is a game where we are pitted against Shakuni.9

What man has done, man may do

Are such huge individual differences in the learning slope really possible and can such steep inclines continue into adulthood? Rather than argue the theory or the neurobiology underlying it, let me rest my case on three disadvantaged individuals who actually climbed unbelievably vertiginous slopes – both in their childhoods and for the rest of their lives. They are (in birth order): Toussaint Louverture,10 Frederick Douglass 11  and Bhimrao Ambedkar 12  : three very different personalities from three different countries who dedicated their lives to the upliftment of the distinct downtrodden groups to which they belonged. What all three shared was the FLY profile and exemplified the steepest of unconventional learning trajectories with the aid of irreplaceable mentors and indomitable courage in the face of overwhelming odds. No single column can convey even an approximation of the inspiration contained in their climbs to success. I hope some of you will find it worthwhile to access the biographies (referenced in the notes) of these heroes. 

Notes:

1 Paul Robeson, The Mountain Song, 'Climbing up', from Robert Stevenson's Film 'King Solomon's Mines', 1937.
2Joe Langford, Pauline Rose Clance, The impostor phenomenon: recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment, Psychotherapy, Volume 30, Fall 1993.
3Visty Banaji, Why Great Business Leaders Are Rare, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 425-432, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
4Visty Banaji, Fast Track to Organizational Transformation, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 38-44, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
5Visty Banaji, Be a PAL, People Matters, 10 April 2023, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/business/the-road-less-travelled-37418).
 6Andrew Grove, Only the Paranoid Survive, Profile Books, 1998.
  7Stanislaw M Ulam, Adventures of a Mathematician, University of California Press, 1992.
 8Visty Banaji, A Hippocratic Oath for HR, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 497-502, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  9Visty Banaji, Guns for (Corporate) Hire, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 19-25, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  10Sudhir Hazareesingh, Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, Penguin, 2021. 
  11David W Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, Simon & Schuster, 2018.
  12Ashok Gopal, A Part Apart: The Life and Thought of B.R. Ambedkar, Navayana, 2023.
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Topics: Employee Relations, Leadership

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