When Looking For a Leader, Look Inside

Originally published on January 3, 2018 by The Montrose Daily Press 

Hiring the leader of an organization is the most important job a board of directors will ever do. The CEO/leadership hiring decision is lasting, impactful and powerful. And though not every board, council or commission will face this enormous responsibility, those serving in that capacity should be prepared to do so.

Additionally, as leaders ourselves we should constantly consider the succession of the organization and what will happen when we are no longer there. Identifying and mentoring people within the current structure who possess the ability and temperament to replace and surpass our abilities as a leader should be one of our primary job functions.

Jim Collins wrote his No.1 bestselling book “Good to Great” based on his curiosity surrounding a company’s ability to defy gravity and convert long-term mediocrity (or worse) into long-term superiority. Collins and his team of researchers identified a set of 11 companies that made the leap to great results and sustained those results for at least 15 years. The research team contrasted the good-to-great companies with a carefully selected set of comparison companies that failed to make the aforementioned leap.

In their research, Collins requested his team ignore the leaders of the companies and look for other factors making them (the companies) superior. Though they tried, the researchers could not ignore the role leadership played in the 11 good-to-great companies during and after their transition to great. How great? On average, the companies researched generated cumulative stock returns that beat the general stock market by an average of seven times in15 years; better than twice the results delivered by a composite index of the world’s “greatest” companies.

As I’ve poured through these findings over and over, I’m continually compelled by one profound outcome: “Ten out of 11 good-to-great CEOs came from inside the company. The comparison companies turned to outsiders with six times greater frequency, yet they failed to produce sustained great results.” The research also proved that going for a high-profile outside change agent has a negative correlation with sustained greatness.

In plain English? Sometimes we must put down our ideas of what the perfect and powerful CEO or leader “looks like” in our mind. We must drop the “knight in shining armor” mentality and think instead toward other deeper and more important qualities in a potential leader.

Whether you are the board working on selecting someone for a vacancy in leadership, or you are the leader and identifying and developing potential successors consider these traits as adapted from Collins’ text:

· Seek from within. Look again. These don’t have to be the people who have all the qualifications to step into the job today. If they have everything in character and temperament, the rest can be taught. When done right, a leader hired from within will perform with the balance of leading your organization to new horizons while maintaining important organizational identity and culture.

Can and have organizations been successful when bringing in leadership from the outside? Of course. But, research says this is absolutely the exception and not the rule, especially when it comes to sustained long-term results.

· Seek dichotomy. These people are not only humble, but they have an intense amount of drive to pair it with. They work hard with ambition that serves the organization first, not themselves.

· Seek a teacher leader. They leave something better than they found it. A great leader will format their position within the organization so that someone inheriting the position will have even greater success; whereas someone driven by ego will set up their successors for failure.

· Seek modesty. Speaking of ego, those organizations with good-to-great results were all led by people with a compelling amount of modesty. They genuinely understated their performance; always giving credit to others. By contrast, comparison leaders had huge egos that contributed to the demise or continued mediocrity of the organization. They took all the credit and none of the blame. Truly great leaders do not lead for glory, riches, or recognition of their own success. Great leaders are ride-or-die for the success of the organization above all else.

· Seek the crazies. Look for people who are literally half-crazy about producing results for your organization. They will do whatever it takes to make it great. These are the people who will fire their own brother, who will sell off non-profitable divisions of the company regardless of emotional or historical attachment. They defy normal and color outside the lines for the sake of performance.

Alan Wurtzel, a second-generation family member who took over his family’s small company and turned it into Circuit City, perfectly captured the gestalt of this trait. When asked about the difference between himself and his counterpart CEO at Circuit City’s comparison company, Wurtzel summed up: “The show horse and the plow horse- he was more of a show horse, whereas I was more of a plow horse.”

If you serve an organization in a decision-making capacity regarding leadership, please do not take that responsibility lightly. If the weight of this scares you: good. Your employees, users, customers, and the world deserve greatness. And let’s not ignore the research: First look within.

Chelsea Rosty is the executive director of the Montrose Chamber of Commerce and director of Business Innovation, City of Montrose. Reach her at chelsea@montrosechamber.com.