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Spotting Top Executive Talent

Recruiters focus on potential, but competencies should not be overlooked.

A veteran corporate executive search recruiter says experience and competencies aren’t as important as potential when hiring or promoting people to the top job. How would this approach play when picking leaders to head government agencies?

Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a veteran corporate executive search recruiter, shares his approach for talent spotting for senior executives in an article in Harvard Business Review. He says that traditional approaches have emphasized assessing intelligence, experience, past performance and the competencies of the individual being considered for an executive slot.

He says that job candidates were “evaluated on specific characteristics and skills that helped predict outstanding performance in the roles for which they were being hired,” but that with the growing complexity of most organizations, that past experience and performance was often irrelevant in predicting success in future roles.

Fernández-Aráoz describes how executive recruiter firms in the 1980s shifted their focus, instead, to assessing competencies to see what combination worked best for different types of leadership roles. But he says that with the increasing velocity of uncertainty and ambiguity in the corporate world—brought about by technology, demographics and globalization—that even this new recruiting approach no longer did a good job at predicting who would be a successful leader. “What makes someone successful in a particular role today might not tomorrow if the competitive environment shifts,” he observes.

So what is the best approach for spotting top talent? Fernández-Aráoz says the new emphasis is on potential, however, “potential is much harder to discern than competence.” The federal government has largely relied on competencies, though.

The Five SES Core Qualifications

The Office of Personnel Management has identified five core qualifications that are the framework for a set of competencies that serve as guideposts for developing and promoting talent to the senior executive level in the federal government. The 7,462 senior executives are assessed on these competencies as they progress in their careers. These competencies are grouped within each of the five core qualifications:

  • Leading change. The ability to bring about strategic change, both within and outside the organization, to meet organizational goals.

  • Leading people. The ability to lead people toward meeting the organization’s vision, mission and goals. 

  • Results driven. The ability to meet organizational goals and customer expectations.

  • Business acumen. The ability to manage human, financial and information resources strategically.

  • Building coalitions. The ability to build coalitions internally and with other federal agencies, state and local governments, nonprofit and private sector organizations, foreign governments, or international organizations to achieve common goals.

The Five Indicators of Potential

Fernández-Aráoz says there are five indicators of potential and that by using them appropriately to spot talent, their predictive accuracy is around 85 percent, based on a model he has used over the past two decades. These indicators are:

  • Motivation. A fierce commitment to excel in the pursuit of unselfish goals.”

  • Curiosity. A penchant for seeking out new experiences, knowledge, and candid feedback, and an openness to learning and change.

  • Insight. The ability to gather and make sense of information that suggests new possibilities.

  • Engagement. A knack for using emotion and logic to communicate a persuasive vision and connect with people.

  • Determination. Having the wherewithal to fight for difficult goals despite challenges and to bounce back from adversity.

I’ve seen some successful talent in the federal government—especially at the political level—that clearly reflects Fernández-Aráoz’s perspective. Few would have suspected that Dan Beard—a congressional staffer—would be the innovative leader of the Bureau of Reclamation back in the 1990s. Or that Greg Woods, a technology executive, would have been the right person to transform the Office of Student Aid. Yet both reflected many of the characteristics highlighted by Fernández-Aráoz. They had potential. They were curious, insightful and created a vision that they carried out with determination.

Should Potential Trump Competencies?

I’m not sure I’d want to rely on pure potential for leadership of technical agencies, such as Air Traffic Operations, Manned Space Flight Operations, or the Indian Health Service. Competencies and experience would seem to be highly important success elements for these jobs. In fact, Fernández-Aráoz writes that potential is important, but that “it would be a mistake to ignore other lessons we’ve learned over the years about how to evaluate people” for leadership potential. He outlines eight leadership abilities that basically reflect the OPM core qualifications for SES.

So, while it may be helpful to factor potential into federal leadership roles, it will still be important to remember that competency and experience should not be forgotten when spotting top talent.

(Image via iluistrator/