Successful Leadership – It’s not who you are, it’s what you do

Published: 5th June 2019

Successful Leadership – It’s not who you are, it’s what you do

Leading industry expert and Chartered Occupational Psychologist Juliette Alban-Metcalfe helped establish the organisation Real World Group, supporting leadership development with both individuals and groups up to Board level globally. With her particular focus on positive psychology and diversity and inclusion, we asked her for her thoughts on leadership in 2018 and beyond.

Leaders today would be forgiven for looking back at the past with wistful thoughts. Casting back only ten years or so takes us to a world which was more stable and predictable, with lesser demands on leadership. Now, increased pace of change, global turbulence and interdependence, and further reduction in resources meet with increasing productivity demands in a perfect storm.

Success now depends on having a leadership culture which maximises the potential of everyone. One where employees experience meaning in their work and understand their contribution to the vision. They are entrepreneurial, and feel their suggestions are welcome. They bring their whole selves to work and feel valued for their contribution. They are psychologically robust in spite of uncertainty, and go the extra mile.

Assessing leadership behaviour

The belief that behaviour is the critical factor that enables leaders to realise high performance in their teams is no longer in doubt. Consistently, studies show that it is the leaders’ day-to day behaviours that have this impact, not their competencies (i.e. their professional or managerial expertise). Unfortunately, organisations continue to struggle to assess leadership behaviour when they make important selection decisions. The best tools available to assist decision making in selection are personality-based assessments, of which there are high-quality, well researched versions. Without reference to personality, we have been researching and developing leadership, and thus organisational performance, for 16 years. Our studies are published in various journals, and our model used in PhDs worldwide.

Our research shows a clear link between what we call Engaging Leadership, and positive impact on employees – such that they experience the key factors mentioned at the start of this article, plus greater performance, wellbeing and reduced stress. While personality correlates with and contributes to behaviour, it is not the same thing as behaviour. In other words, assessing personality can help explain and predict how a leader will behave to a degree, but it cannot provide a certain or full picture of how an individual actually behaves in role.

A new approach to behaviour assessment in selection

To help organisations gain greater insight into predicting leadership behaviour at a senior level, we have created a new and very different assessment tool, the Performance Leader Identifier (PLI). It enables organisations to have the right conversations during selection or promotion processes, based on the findings of our research for many years. Leaders’ self-assessment of their behaviour in role enables exploration of the extent to which they enact those behaviours that maximise performance.

Using the PLI as part of assessment for senior positions provides a robust leadership model as a basis, and the language with which to explore candidates’ behaviour more fully. It enables greater confidence than with personality assessment alone that the candidate will be able to create the culture that contributes to competitive advantage. It also takes a realistic appreciation that if a candidate is not perfectly suited to a role in every way, the organisation will have a clearer understanding what can be coached to overcome weaker preferences, as opposed to looking only at the individual’s innate (fixed) traits.

Practical benefits of the PLI for organisations and recruiters

There are a number of ways in which the PLI is a disruptive innovation in selection, including the focus on behaviour, senior leadership specificity, cost and accessibility of the tool. Included as standard are interview questions for the organisation, and development suggestions for the candidates – enhancing their positive experience. The leadership model on which the PLI is based was demographically inclusive in its design, and has been shown through research to be what is needed to reduce many of the barriers to career progression for under-represented groups. Thus, it helps to address some of the unconscious bias factors in both candidate selection and how they are likely to go on to develop others.

Organisations may choose to use to continue to apply a personality-based assessment alongside the PLI. Either way, it will provide a unique lens into senior leadership behaviour, based on contemporary research and genuine appreciation of today’s organisational challenges.