Motivating Leaders: Why Unlocking Their Potential Is Critical

March 30, 2016 – According to a major new global study of senior executives by Egon Zehnder, mounting evidence shows optimal performance comes from the alignment of an executive’s personal values with an organization’s culture and the role’s responsibilities, yet few executives or organizations have made the adjustments necessary to take advantage of this synergy.

The report, entitled “Leadership Identity – What Makes You Thrive?,”  found that only 40 percent of executives said their organization helps them unlock their potential while another 31 percent responded in the negative and 27 percent were neutral.

In addition, 72 percent of those surveyed said they would welcome more help from their organization to pinpoint and pursue personal motivations and goals.

“There are a number of critical areas about which organizations and their executives are failing to communicate,” said Andrew Roscoe, leader of Egon Zehnder’s executive assessment and development practice and one of the co-authors of the study. ”If companies and executives can start to work together to align personal values and career trajectories, there is the potential to greatly increase job satisfaction, retention and performance across the global economy.”

The most commonly cited motivation was “making a difference,” chosen by 55 percent of respondents, followed by “personal growth and development,” “leading and organizing others” and “monetary compensation,” each chosen by 45 percent of those surveyed. The wide range of motivations among leaders is underscored by the fact that no single factor was chosen by much more than half of the respondents.

The survey also found 70 percent of respondents believe that there is too much emphasis placed on moving up the ranks, when lateral career movements should be equally esteemed. Furthermore, only 31 percent of respondents believe their organization has effective ways to reward high performance other than promotion.


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“Optimal performance occurs in the overlap between the organization’s needs and the executive’s needs,” said Wolfhart Pentz of Egon Zehnder’s Berlin office and the study’s co-author. “Both sides need to work together to increase the size of this common ground.”

Too often, professional development is a monologue given by the organization to the executive, said Mr. Roscoe. “It needs to evolve to a true dialogue,” he added. “But that isn’t only the responsibility of the organization. Executives need to take ownership of their own growth and trajectory and be active partners in that dialogue, rather than assume the only options are ‘take it or leave it.’”

Egon Zehnder offers the following suggestions to help do so:

For Organizations 

  • Professional development should go beyond mere box-checking and become a true dialogue between the organization and the executive;
  • The rationale behind proposed moves could be better communicated;
  • Additional ways to develop executives who decline traditional promotion tracks should be created;
  • Metrics of success need to expand their emphasis beyond the traditional quantitative measures.

For Executives

  • Executives should take more ownership of their own growth and trajectory and be forthright in discussing their goals with the organization;
  • Executives could improve their awareness and understanding of their own personal priorities, how they intersect with those of the organization – and how they both change over time;
  • Executives should take accountability for shaping current roles to maximize alignment with their interests and priorities.

A number of reports have recently surfaced that also find executives expressing the need to make culture a priority to drive alignment, collaboration, and performance. According to the ‘Real World Leadership’ study by Korn Ferry Hay Group“driving culture change” ranks among the top three global leadership development priorities.

The study says that executives report the most widely used strategy to improve culture is “communications,” followed by “leadership development,” and “embedding culture change in management objectives.” In addition, it found that “improving organizational alignment and collaboration” is the primary reason executives choose to focus on improving culture, followed by “improving organizational performance.”

“Culture is no longer seen as an afterthought when considering the business focus of an organization,” said Noah Rabinowitz, senior partner and global head of KF Hay Group’s leadership development practice. “Culture is the X-factor. It’s the invisible glue that holds an organization together and ultimately makes the difference between whether an organization is able to succeed in the market or not.”

Talent, leadership, and culture are intrinsically linked, and they are crucial to strategic execution, said Arvinder Dhesi, a KF Hay Group senior client partner. “It’s a mistake for top leaders to believe that culture is somehow separate from themselves or a separate project. Everything that we do contributes to the culture. There’s no culture-neutral behavior.”

With culture and leadership development becoming hot topics within the talent management industry, many searches firms have begun to expand their services in this area:

  • Former Egon Zehnder partner Rob Sloan recently launched Starboard Tack Partners, a strategic talent development and advisory services provider to boards, chief executives and executive teams in the financial services sector. Mr. Sloan said he decided to set out on his own to take advantage of the “major shift toward more diversified services” in the executive recruiting and leadership solutions sector. The talent continuum is very broad-based, said Mr. Sloan, and senior level recruiters now look at talent management from a more holistic perspective. This, he said, includes assessment, onboarding & integration, ongoing assessment, culture shaping, and career planning right up through to leadership development and succession planning.

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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