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Choosing the right tools for the right successor

In my article two weeks ago I discussed three steps for developing and sustaining a successful talent programme: creating a succession plan policy, identifying talent, and establishing a development programme. Today I would like to focus mainly on identifying talent, a subject on which many top executives sometimes have conflicting views.

In order to identify the right talent and successors, there are two areas we have to measure before we can use the data to make a final decision. The first relates to the candidate's true self and the second relates to how he or she behaves.

Awareness of one's true self: Developing an understanding of a potential talent is necessary for a top executive who wants to nurture and promote the right person.

The first step is to understand that each individual typically has two key characteristics -- internal personality and cognitive ability.

Internal personality dictates the way a person is likely to behave and respond to the conditions around him or her. This personality does not change very much over time. Cognitive ability refers to the ability of the brain to handle various kinds of tasks. It has three components: verbal reasoning (ability to interpret written information), numerical reasoning (ability to handle and calculate numbers) and abstract reasoning (ability to quickly understand patterns never experienced before).

From my experience, some senior executives tend to think that all assessments are the same and they may not want to spend time and resources on them. Some believe that for potential successors to top positions, any assessment tool can be used since the candidates are obviously outstanding or they wouldn't have got to where they are.

They may be right up to a point, since everyone is following the top executive's guidance anyway. However, in practical terms, things don't always work that way. We need highly accurate tools that can separate true potential from less relevant characteristics.

Typical behaviour: After learning the true characteristics of a candidate, the next step involves learning about his or her typical behaviour. There are a number of tools and approaches we can use, such as:

Interview with a direct boss: Rightly or wrongly, bosses strongly influence their direct reports. Learning their views is thus highly important as we can gain insights into how the candidate responds in various situations.

360-degree feedback: This usually involves at least five people including the candidate, his or her direct boss, a direct subordinate and two peers, one from inside and one from outside the candidate's department. The more feedback providers are involved, the more accurate the data will be. It is advisable to design a survey form based on the organisation's capabilities.

Assessment centre: This practice involves a number of people. The candidate will be asked to perform in a different kind of situation, and the assessor(s) will evaluate that behaviour. The assessment centre is considered the most expensive behavioural assessment approach. And since humans change their behaviour over time, the results might not be valid for more than 24 months.

As well, using an outside consultant as an assessor might not be effective. I would suggest using executives from within the organisation. With proper training, they should be able to deliver an accurate assessment since they are insiders who are familiar with the organisation's capabilities and culture.

Observation in meetings: Looking closely at how people behave in real meetings is something I believe CEOs should consider. Some may argue that candidates will try to put on a show if they know they are being observed. That's true. However, you can gain useful insights if you combine this with other approaches.

Moving forward: When the parties involved have gathered all the information, there should be a formal meeting to review all the data. Because the CEO may not have a lot of time, the head of HR should summarise the key messages.

This is where the disagreements usually start. Imagine you are a successful top executive, someone who's known to be good at reading people. To your surprise, the information on one particular talent is not what you strongly believed it would be, which means you may have been wrong. What will you do?

Most executives in such a situation will choose not to accept the assessment results, especially the personality report. They may even seek to discredit the methodology. This is dangerous. We need to bear in mind that the methodology was already approved before the process started. It is recommended that all parties honour what they agreed beforehand.

In conclusion, besides using the right tools and processes for identifying talent and successors as described above, open dialogue among decision-makers is essential.

Thoroughly exploring and discussing all the information at hand will certainly help the organisation to identify the right talent for the benefit of the company in the long run.

Sorayuth Vathanavisuth is Principal and Executive Coach at the Center for Southeast Asia Leadership and lectures at Mahidol University's College of Management. His areas of interest are corporate strategy, executive coaching and leadership development. He can be reached at