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Leadership Development

Leadership: A game of clones?

Subscribe to Leadership Development 10/5/2015 Bonnie W. Gwin

 Game of Clones

You won’t find “fit” on a job candidate’s résumé, but it is fast becoming a critical determinant in hiring decisions. And in my industry — executive search and leadership consulting — the increasing focus on whether a leader will thrive in a given environment qualifies as one of the notable trends of the past decade. Nevertheless, fit remains widely misunderstood and often misused.

For example, Lauren A. Rivera, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, recently interviewed 120 decision makers and spent nine months observing the hiring practices of one firm in particular. She concluded that in many companies fit has “gone rogue” and has morphed into “a catchall used to justify hiring people who are similar to decision makers and rejecting people who are not.” In essence, she says, decision makers often hire people who they would prefer to hang out with.

Such an approach is obviously misguided, as it discourages diversity and healthy debate and encourages groupthink. Ultimately, it leaves companies less prepared for changing times by limiting the perspectives and worldviews that executives or corporate directors bring to the table. Call it a “game of clones.”

In our experience, the benefits of fit don’t come when leaders seek to clone themselves but instead when they hire colleagues who complement one another through their differences. Viewed this way, fit is not about finding candidates who “fit in” but about a would-be colleague’s ability to contribute to a team built upon a complex mix of skills, perspectives, thinking styles, and behaviors. Indeed, this conception of fit helps explain the magic that enables companies with diverse teams to outperform less diverse groups.

Understand leadership fit potential by understanding leadership style

How can companies better understand how individuals are likely to fit with the larger group? Start by understanding how they lead. Research that our firm recently conducted provides some insights. Through rigorous analysis of survey results encompassing more than 1,000 US executives at director level and above at companies with 250 or more employees, we identified eight statistically distinct leadership styles, or archetypes. While leaders will likely have access to every style to a varying degree, our experience suggests that they tend to gravitate to a much smaller set of default styles that they find comfortable or familiar and will often exhibit a primary style.

game of clones chart

To learn more about the leadership styles, and to take a brief assessment, see our article in Harvard Business Review. The assessment provides immediate feedback about your style — potential strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots — and pinpoints the settings where you’ll be most and least effective. 

There is no wrong or right leadership style but it is good to understand which style fits the role and team

It’s worth noting that there is no right or wrong leadership style — each has its place, its particular power, and its potential blind spots. For example, leaders identified as Pilots enjoy ambiguous environments, generate compelling strategies, and translate them into action.

Pilots hold clear opinions, relish challenges, and value working with others. But their strong drive can spur them to push for changes faster and harder than colleagues are ready for. They can dominate a room, leave little opportunity for others to lead, and charge ahead without learning from the past or thinking enough about the future. Pilots thrive in situations requiring visionary leadership.

They also do well in start-ups, in turnarounds, or in organizations that need to reengage the workforce. But they struggle under the thumb of a micromanager, guardians of the status quo, or rigid processes and protocols. 

Contrast that with Collaborators. Leaders who fit this archetype take a team-first approach, support and develop colleagues, share credit, and attract talent. But their focus on others may come at the expense of strategic vision and clear direction setting, and they can have trouble holding others accountable.

Collaborators thrive in environments where followers require a genuine relationship, need mentoring, or are recovering from a prior leader who was toxic. They also function well as a “number two” to impersonal, aggressive leaders, providing needed balance. They perform less well in roles requiring unilateral decisions, on teams composed of individual contributors, or in situations requiring bold direction and the ability to influence key stakeholders.

As these snapshots imply, populating a team entirely with copycats — be they Pilots, Collaborators, or any one of the other six leadership archetypes — is unwise and quite possibly untenable. Instead, companies need a much better understanding of leadership styles and how they interact with one another.

Combined with careful assessment, a more nuanced notion of fit could help organizations balance team leadership dynamics, determine what leadership styles best fit a particular role or business situation, and help leaders expand their leadership repertoires to match changing circumstances.

But this happens only when the senior executives making hiring decisions recognize that fit isn’t about making friends or fitting in. It’s about fitting together the pieces of a highly complex puzzle. In short: it's a game of contrasts, not a game of clones.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of Bonnie Gwin's “LinkedIn Influencers” series. For more articles by this author, follow her on LinkedIn by clicking here.

Bonnie W. Gwin Vice Chairman +1 212 867 9876

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