The L-Factor: Is it Undermining Your Talent Strategy?
The other night I heard a political pundit on TV argue that, in the end, the 2016 presidential election, like all others over the past 50 years, will come down to likeability. From Ike to Reagan to Clinton to Obama, the grin, the twinkle and the reassuring exterior will ultimately charm the voter (we’ll leave The Donald”s appeal for another day!). George Bush senior may have been a little East Coast, but the choice was between him and an even icier Dukakis – and the second time, he lost to the saxophone-wielding ultimate cool guy. Then there is George W. His demeanor made him the brunt of jokes at times, but he could poke fun at himself and jest with the best of them. Top political leaders almost invariably have a strong “L-factor” going for them – likeability.
Recognizing the power of likeability in elections may be tantamount to admitting that America is rife with low-information voters, but it is also a bow to basic principles of psychology. So is likeability a trait most effective CEOs and C-suite leaders share? If so, great. But, I think we need to ask ourselves a crucial follow-up question: How many likeable but suboptimal leaders do we hire? When we interview candidates, do we let likeability (and its close, but equally dangerous, cousin “similarity”) get in the way of making the best decisions?
The Likeability Conundrum
In his book, “The Likeability Factor,” Tim Sanders cites a Yale study showing that good leaders make a genuine attempt to be liked. According to the study, people, unlike animals, gain success not by being aggressive, but by being nice. The research found that most successful leaders, from CEOs to school PTA presidents, all treated their subordinates with respect and made genuine attempts to be liked. Their approach garnered support and led to greater success.
“Should we assume that candidates with a high L-factor are inherently good leaders?”
But here’s where I see clients fall prey to a logical fallacy, albeit a very natural one. Because we know most good leaders have a high L-factor, people can quite unconsciously turn this on its head and assume that candidates with a high L-factor are inherently good leaders. Also, we all know it’s natural to gravitate toward those who simply think as we do. “Birds of a feather” tends to trump “opposites attract” in both love and business. It takes a very trained eye stay focused on the job specs and performance objectives when the candidate shares his obsession with your favorite sports team or hobby.
Case in point: Earlier this year, I worked with a client on a search for a global sales leader. This founder and CEO’s greatest strengths lay in his thoroughness, his attention to detail. Frankly, in his case, micromanaging had served him well as he grew his business from meager means to a market technology leader. When we started, however, I found him developing candidate specs that were a perfect self-image. We talked it over. I suggested to him that if he were to hire a person with these traits he defined – highly analytical, compliant, reserved and risk-adverse – to be a sales leader, he likely will fall far short of meeting the long-term business results. Ultimately, rather than searching for a person in this CEO’s likeness, we found someone with the perfect behavioral attributes for a sales leadership role – highly sociable, independent, driven and equipped with a strong, take-charge personality – who could be a pioneer in opening new markets and build a global sales organization. At the same time, we ensured the candidate had the EQ – a strong sense of self-awareness as well as keen sensitivity to others – and the business savvy necessary to effectively “manage up” by keeping his boss informed and engaged while managing his expectations.
How to avoid the getting sidetracked by a powerful L-factor
1. Believe in your metrics! If you have defined the Behavioral Attributes required for success in the role correctly, for example, you are already accounting for the L-factor. It doesn’t benefit you to step outside those parameters so you can accommodate that awesome candidate you just enlisted as your new doubles partner!
2. Play “Switch” with a team member who is less keen on the candidate than you are. The way this works is that you argue vehemently against him, while your teammate argues for him. Try channeling the spirit of your high school debate competitions where you had to argue for whatever side was assigned to you, lame or not. This may bring you to an enlightened reckoning with the candidate’s weaknesses.
3. Keep in mind that still waters really can run deep. In fact, 40 percent of CEOs are introverts. There are some big fish out there for the catching. Your affable “expressive” may be wielding a bamboo pole, while the angler with gravitas is the one with the ability to hook and reel in the prize customers, lenders and investors.
Having said this, I recognize that there are rare occasions when a truly extraordinary gem, an industry powerhouse, comes along while you were looking for something else. I have, at times, advised clients to rip up their position criteria, grab the superstar and put the puzzle pieces together in some different way. But not often.
As long as a thoughtful process of building a holistic performance profile, including skills as well as behavioral competencies, has been followed, it pays to stick with the plan 99 percent of the time.
The Willingness to be Diverse
“All the world old is strange save thee and me, and even thou art a little strange.”
-Robert Owen, paraphrased
Diversity in the C-suite is about a lot more than gender, nationality, race and cultural differences. Defining and putting together a team of people who have diverse strengths, yet who can champion common goals, is nothing if not an art, and sometimes this feels like nothing short of a miracle.
My clients put a great deal of soul-searching and planning into establishing the criteria for their new top managers. Selection teams do best when they avoid the L-factor’s siren song and evaluate candidates against established skills and behavioral competencies – even if the strongest candidate comes in a package that seems, well, a little “strange”.
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