The Best Internal Candidate Might Come From an Unlikely Place

Proven winners are great additions to any team. But finding a leader who can develop new talents makes everyone a winner.

Nearly a decade after Gallup released “Strengths-Based Leadership,” which asserts that great leaders are always investing in strengths, we are learning that the opposite may also be true.

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When we rely too heavily on our strengths, we might effectively hinder our learning.

According to Gallup, when work focuses on individuals’ strengths, employees are six times more likely to be engaged in the job. That makes intuitive sense.

Yet, when we rely too heavily on our strengths, we might effectively hinder our learning. To use a sports analogy, you’re not going to ever be a really great tennis player unless you stop relying on your forehand (your strength) so that you can develop your backhand, which is inherently weaker.

Focusing on lesser-used preferences, competencies or weaknesses presents the best opportunity for learning and development. And research shows that those who remain in “learning mode” ultimately develop stronger leadership skills.

Apple and Microsoft are good examples of companies keeping their leaders in learning mode. Both companies named leaders from completely different parts of the business as their current heads of people – Apple’s Deirdre O’Brien came from worldwide sales and operations, and Microsoft’s Kathleen Hogan came from worldwide services at Microsoft.

By tapping already high-performing leaders from other areas, these companies are making a long-term investment in those leaders and their skills.

Here are some key benefits companies can get from looking outside the box for leadership candidates:

 Accelerated development of key leaders

A 2014 report by the Human Capital Institute and the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported that companies used cross-functional projects most frequently (nearly 80 percent of the time) to develop key leaders.

Greater diversity of perspectives

Being an “outsider” entering a new function brings fresh ideas and perspectives and can sometimes be a catalyst to question old ways of operating that may no longer work. Seemingly “naïve” questions can spark new thinking and get people to examine the previously unexamined.

Improved retention of top talent

Rotating your employees into new roles keeps them challenged and learning and therefore, more likely to stay.

Better internal networks

Working in different functional areas within an organization builds your network and helps leaders see the political landscape from a better vantage point. Leaders can then reach out strategically to key stakeholders in different functions to help them achieve their goals.

Ability to leverage institutional knowledge and culture fit

Given that 81 percent of new hires fail, according to Leadership IQ’s Global Talent Management Survey, it’s no wonder companies are willing to take an already high-performing executive from one area – who has strong institutional knowledge and is already a proven culture fit – and move them to a new function.

Increased organizational capacity

If employees are encouraged to develop in areas that are not yet their strengths, as they expand their own capability, they also expand the organization’s collective capacity.

Proven winners are great additions to any team. But finding a leader who can develop new talents makes everyone a winner.

This article originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was republished with permission.

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Rebecca Zucker is a founding partner at Next Step Partners.

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