Why the Best Internal Candidate Might Be from an Unlikely Part of the Company

By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners

Originally published by Harvard Business Review.

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

The more traditional strengths-based approach highlights that when work focuses on individuals’ strengths, employees are six times more likely to be engaged in the job, according to Gallup. That makes intuitive sense. It feels good to do what we are good at, and to receive the praise and recognition that come with doing a good job.

Yet the counter-argument is that when we rely too heavily on our strengths, we 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. We all need to develop skills that don’t come naturally. For example, an introvert may want to try her hand at a sales role, where research shows that extraverts are more likely to perform well.

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 Deidre O’Brien came from Worldwide Sales and Operations and Microsoft’s Kathleen Hogan came from Worldwide Services at Microsoft. If these companies had followed a strengths-based leadership approach, they would have likely hired an internal or external candidate who’d built their entire career in the field of Human Resources, where they could easily leverage their domain expertise. 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.

Call it baptism by fire. Being immersed in a new area requires you to get up to speed quickly and build other competencies that perhaps haven’t been as well developed. A 2014 report by the Human Capital Institute and the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC titled How to Accelerate Leadership Development reported that companies used cross-functional projects most frequently (nearly 80% of the time) to develop key leaders. Stretch assignments were used 76% of the time by the companies surveyed. More than 91% percent of the companies reported planning to use cross-functional projects to accelerate development by 2019, and 89% percent planned to use stretch projects.

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. According to a Spencer Stuart report, changing functional roles can also bring new insights into the business and can result in better and quicker decision making, as well as in breaking down silos.

Improved retention of top talent.

Rotating your employees into new roles keeps them challenged and learning, and therefore, more likely to stay. According to a 2016 Workplace Boredom Study, bored employees are more than twice as likely to leave a company. When asked to provide the top reasons for feeling bored, 46% mentioned a lack of opportunity to learn new skills and 44% cited unchallenging work. Eighty percent also mentioned that learning new skills would make them more engaged.

Better internal networks. 

Working in different functional areas within an organization builds your network more broadly and helps leaders see the political landscape from a better vantage point. Leaders can then reach out strategically to key stakeholders in different functions or business units to help them achieve both their personal and organizational goals, helping them to be more successful.

Ability to leverage institutional knowledge and culture fit.

Given that 81% of new hires fail, according to Leadership IQ’s Global Talent Management Survey, and that the true cost of bad hires can be significant, 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. 

In the book, An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, authors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey profile a tech company called Next Jump that follows the maxim, “Better Me + Better You = Better Us.” If employees are encouraged to develop in areas that are not yet their strengths, be they technical or adaptive in nature, then as they each expand their own capability and capacity, so do they expand the organization’s collective capability and capacity.

Proven winners are great additions to any team. But finding a leader with a track record in another area or skill set who can develop new talents adds depth and dimension to a team, and makes everyone a winner.



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