Relating CEO Talent to Performance
By: Vandana Allman
This article explores the age old question of nature versus nurture: Do we perform well because of our innate characteristics or rather because of the environments we construct, environments that are designed to “pull” high performance out of their inhabitants? Much has been said and written about the external contributions of environment to high performance. Here, however, the authors examine the intrinsic quality of talent. We all have it – but are some of us truly “born” to be leaders?
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This morning when you looked into the mirror, did you think to yourself, “I am the perfect fit for my role as CEO of my association?” It’s very likely most of you hesitated before answering or agreeing with this statement.
If you believe you are the right fit for your current role, on what basis did you make that determination? How is it you know that you are the right fit for the demanding role of association CEO? In fact, how does one even go about measuring something such as fit?
For those of you who answered “no,” how does it feel to be in a role where you may not fit well? Is it uncomfortable? Do you struggle to make it through the day?
Talent – and how that talent is developed and productively applied in a person’s role in an organization – is one of the most important aspects of effective leadership. Talent has incredible influence on performance outcomes that affect the organization’s bottom line.
What Is Talent? And Do You Have It?
Talent is one of the most often used – as well as most often misunderstood – constructs in contemporary management literature. The Gallup Organization defines talent – in its two books First, Break All the Rules (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Now, Discover Your Strengths (Simon & Schuster, 2001) – as “a recurring pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that can be productively applied to achieve consistent, near-perfect performance.” Gallup developed this definition of talent based on completed interviews with 40,000 leaders, prospective leaders, and others who manage people across the globe and who have proven and measurable performance results. Our research over the past 30 years concludes that talent is both measurable and predictive.
Everyone has talent. You are born with talent. Neurological and cognitive research suggests that by the age of three, children develop patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that strongly shape how they approach and behave in their world. As a person’s brain further develops, the body begins pruning those pathways that are less used and widens those that are more developed. As Dr. Harry Chugani, professor of pediatrics, neurology, and radiology at Wayne State University, notes, “Roads with the most traffic get widened. The ones that are rarely used fall into disrepair.” Those widened pathways quickly become the templates of the thoughts, feelings, and patterns of our lives.
This is the essence of talent. And when a person becomes aware of his or her talents and begins to consciously develop those talents, they become strengths. And developing those strengths lead to better performance in all areas of life.
But how do you measure talent? Is it even measurable? Gallup research concludes that talent not only is measurable but also can be predictive of success in a role. Instead of attempting to define differences in performance by a set of competencies, Gallup research examined why and how great managers were intrinsically different from other managers – not how they did their job differently than their peers. Those managing through competencies alone follow pre-established steps that, if adhered to, will lead to success (e.g., best practices). Great managers, on the other hand, define their desired outcome and depend solely on their talent and the talents of others whom they manage to achieve that outcome.
Our research uncovered that great leaders and managers possess and hone certain traits that others do not. On a scale from one to five, with five being “strongly agree,” how would you respond to these dimensions?
I have above average self-awareness about my talents;
I constantly and consistently develop and sharpen my talents into strengths;
I actively encourage and help others discover their talents so as to position them for success;
I have developed systems to manage my weaknesses so I can spend more time on areas that allow my strengths to shine.
The more than 40,000 managers Gallup interviewed who consistently had performed superbly seemed to innately “know” their talents and could cite specific instances in which they positioned themselves for success by using their talents. These managers were acutely aware that their ability to excel in particular skills was a direct result of their talents.
Talent as a Causative Agent
Here’s how talent leads to an outcome. The CEO of one of the fastest-growing pizza franchises in history explained in fascinating detail how he could determine special formulas that made his product unique: He could read his financial and operational reports in seconds and determine where the best opportunities existed and which problems could derail the expansion. Once he identified his talent, he could exploit that talent to reach his – and his board’s – desired outcomes. In all cases, individual talents accounted greatly in why these leaders achieved higher levels of successful outcomes in almost every part of their lives.
Gallup’s research suggests that talent – and a person’s ability to take advantage of that talent – is much more predictive of future success than any other factor, including skills and knowledge. Leaders must understand that talent can be defined, refined, and developed to create actions that lead to world-class performance. Self-awareness of one’s talent must be part of a leader’s overall performance reviews.
Gallup’s research also concludes that the more closely a person’s natural abilities align with the demand of a particular role, the higher that person’s likelihood of measurable success in that role will be. More simply put, how your talents synchronize with the demands of the role within the organization you lead drives more meaningful and measurable performance.
Based on the recent performance of associations in general, a case could me made that many of the people leading associations are not the right fit for their roles, if that assumption were made based solely on measures such as membership retention and revenues. And until a better fit can be found, these associations will not achieve performance that will allow the organizations to survive, let alone thrive, in the future.
Your Individual Fit
Gallup estimated there are more than 10 million managers in the American workforce today, but only about 10 percent of those managers are actually the right fit for their role.
In our research, we examined leader and manager performance at the workgroup level, measuring the effect the individual manager had on his or her direct reports and how well the managers performed based on a number of stringent and measurable individual performance metrics. Measuring at the lowest level possible is essential, because it singles out the best and worst individual performance rather than aggregating results into overall averages that can hide or distort the best and worst performance. In addition, we tracked manager performance over time, comparing that performance with how closely those managers scored their “fit to role” or how they scored against a set selection criteria. Each manager completed a selection interview as part of an effort to validate the most predictive questions in selecting the best fits to the demands of the role.
Those managers who consistently and quantifiably outperformed their peers took a markedly talent-driven approach to four basic managerial activities, as illustrated in the table below:
|Basic Manager Activity||Conventional Manager||High-Performing Manager|
|Selecting Staff||Select staff for skills and past experience, not on talent||Select staff for talent first, then skills and knowledge|
|Setting expectations||Define the right steps||Define the right outcomes|
|Motivating||Help each staff person to overcome weakness||Focus staff on talents while managing weaknesses|
|Developing||Help each person learn and get promoted||Help people discover where they fit best to make an impact on the organization|
allup tested hundreds of questions with the highest-performing managers to uncover which items best correlated to past performance and predicted future performance. Based on the general roles a leader must play in every organization, Gallup statistically validated a series of questions that were predictive of success. We discovered that the questions with the most predictive validity could be categorized into seven demands of leadership (narrowed to focus for association/not-for-profit leadership):
Visioning. Excels in reworking the future of an association; ability to paint a picture that is different than the past; constantly reminding members of why they are a part of this association and the difference membership is making; helping a broad constituency feel a part of something larger than themselves; creating a brand that has implications for their business at a local level.
Mentoring. Creates good networking opportunities for association members to find others in like positions; facilitates and encourages meetings that give members the opportunity to connect with and be coached by people outside their own organization; has better career understanding in the field of associations.
Constituency building. Effectively builds their associations through recruiting of staff and members; keen awareness of details of membership (helps to keep it strong and growing); fully understands their role in lobbying and what their association intends to contribute to various areas of influence.
Maximizing values. Consistently emphasizes the purpose and reason for the association; makes clear the emotional connection for why people are members; clearly articulates the mission and reason for the association being in business and important to the membership.
Challenging experience. Driven by challenges such as any type of turnaround, whether it be growth, financial, or reinvention; highly attracted to the opportunity of leading an organization out of trouble or making it larger so that it could survive, flourish, and live out its mission.
Making sense of experience. Takes previous learning and builds on it; looks at one situation and realizes application to another; expert in utilizing their talents, skills, and backgrounds in various scenarios; looks for opportunity to build experience for self and others in the organizational structure.
Awareness of self. Keen awareness of their individual talents, skills, and knowledge; constantly refines and develops strengths with each experience; shares talent and strengths mindset with others to help in development; makes judgments based on best fit and most probable successful outcomes; secure in taking risks.
The key to measuring performance is defining what “world-class” performance is. The aforementioned provides a context to not only assess but also effectively manage the demands of leadership. It also serves as a road map toward increased self-awareness.
Developing Talent: Maximizing What You Have
The first step in better self-awareness is creating a language around talent. Gallup developed a catalog of the 34 most prominent and apparent talents found in the most effective leaders. We calculate that there are more than 33 million different combinations of unique talents in the world today. Each person’s individual talents are certainly unique – both the rank order of the 34 talents and the intensity of each talent – and how these talents blend is even more unique. This means that when people share the same talent themes, it is very likely those themes have different strengths that manifest themselves differently.
What if two people have exactly the same top-five themes? If one of those individuals is an excellent salesperson, doesn’t that mean that the second individual also would be an excellent salesperson for that same company? The answer, surprisingly, is not necessarily. Predictive success in a job doesn’t depend on a person’s top themes. Great variation exists in the specific talents. A person’s success is about the theme combinations and their dynamics as well as the level of exposure to real-life “practice.” Strengths and themes are only a starting point.
Learning from Your Peers
For this article, The Gallup Organization (with the assistance of the Center for Association Leadership) selected 12 association leaders to complete a leadership assessment. Gallup set forth the following strict criteria when selecting the leaders to participate in this study:
The leader must have measurable results that could be compared and analyzed. These measures ranged from revenue growth, membership retention, and association growth.
The leader must have measurable results within his or her organization that exceed the performance of associations in general.
The leaders had to be recognized by peers as exemplifying world-class performance.
After narrowing the field to 12 top-performing leaders, each leader was asked to complete a Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment. Each leader received a report that rank ordered the talents from one to 34, with one being the most prevalent talent and 34 being the least prevalent. In situations where two talents had the same prevalence, the talents appeared in alphabetical order.
Each leader was then asked to complete a 90-minute telephone interview containing the questions that had predictive and concurrent validity in assessing and linking to the demands of leadership.
This research aimed to two objectives: to educate these leaders about their talents and how they can develop those talents to improved performance, and to measure how closely leaders compared to the 40,000 leaders and prospective leaders on achieving and exceeding the demands of leadership.
Findings From Association CEOs
Improved self-awareness could propel performance. The leaders we interviewed did not always have a clear perspective or could not clearly describe how they worked within the various demands of leadership.
No one leader was the same. The talent dimensions looked very different in each person we spoke to, despite that all participants had the same basic roles and responsibilities. This reinforces the notion that leaders with the same talents will perform very differently – mostly because each leader demonstrates his or talents in different ways.
The will to “make a difference every day” drives leaders.
Each leader valued the opportunity to make a difference every day as a key aspect of his or her role. This desire seems to be central to many leaders in the association world. journal of association leadership
Mistakes facilitate learning. Each leader mentioned the value of learning from mistakes and recognizing that he or she does not have all the answers.
A passive approach to developing leaders inside the
organization. The focus on member needs versus staff development needs was a constant theme. This balance needs to change so that staff can begin to maximize their talents and be better positioned to serve members.
What Every Board Needs to Know About Finding and Developing Leaders
Selecting leaders for a particular role is one of the most important responsibilities of boards and executives – and a candidate may have the talent to perform in a role but may not be the “best” fit for the role. In order to increase the likelihood of success in hiring association leaders, talent has to be measured, assessed, and certainly considered as a critical factor. Here are some things to remember.
- There is no cookie-cutter approach to hiring great leaders or great managers – talent comes in many different packages. But talent must be accounted for in the hiring process.
- Be very clear about expectations and outcomes for all roles. Role is not just about tasks; it’s about the demands of leadership. Job descriptions and anecdotal experiences often miss the true roles and responsibilities, thereby hampering the interviewing process.
- The right fit comes when the individual’s talents, skills, and knowledge meet the demands of the role now and in the future. Begin focusing on the talent of your people and uncover how self-aware leaders are about the role of their talents in your organization.
- Make developing individual talents within the organization a priority. Help your association create opportunities for employees to become more self-aware of their talents, and allow them to explore options that would increase their likelihood of “fit” in a role.
- When a fit looks strained, intervene quickly. If it can be remedied, do so quickly. If not, begin searching for the talent that is a closer fit.
Creating a Strengths-Based Organization
Two of the most important roles any leader has in an organization are selecting people who will positively contribute to the growth of the organization and developing the talent, skills, and knowledge of each and every staff person in the organization. Selecting talent for a role is a very different activity from developing talent, skills, and knowledge in a role. The first step as a leader is to assess your current talent base, determine where the gaps exist, and then reposition your talent to increase performance. In cases where the gap is too wide, you may need to seek another solution.
One of the best predictors of future success of any organization is whether the leadership of the organization, management, and front-line staff all possess the right talent-to-role fit, demonstrating consistent, world-class performance. How they position talent within their organization is a clear indicator of possible success.
The key to becoming a talent-based organization rests on perfecting how you develop that talent to grow in the future. In a very real way, talent is a part of both the selection and development processes. Under-standing a person’s talents guides employers in making better hiring decisions and helps them bring exceptional performers into the organization. Understanding how to develop those talents into strengths also can help employees refine the way they do their jobs and considerably enhance their performance.
An organization that selects and develops people on the basis of their individual talents is likely to gain a competitive advantage through a stronger talent base and better use of human assets. Associations are more likely to be able to develop a cohesive team of productive, engaged members that will lead to better business outcomes.
Being a right fit in your role requires deeper self-awareness of your talents and strengths. By developing your talents – and the talent of others – around the roles you need to perform, those recurring pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors will lead to higher productivity and achievement of consistent, near-perfect performance.
Vandana Allman is strengths practice leader for The Gallup Organization. She can be reached at 202-715-3100.
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