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Four Things HR Looks for When Promoting Leaders

Four Things HR Looks for When Promoting Leaders

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged professionals on almost every front, but experts say the turmoil caused by the crisis has been the perfect training ground for those wanting to climb the corporate ladder.

Agility, resilience and an ability to adapt to change will stand executives in good stead if they are angling for leadership promotion in the next three to five years, according to human resources leaders.

“We tend to consider traits like problem-solving and resilience in leaders, at a time when adaptability to change is key,” says RMIT Online chief executive Helen Souness.

“Too few of our existing workforce are devoting sufficient time to replenishing their skills to keep up with a changing workforce, so a passion and drive to learn and stay on top of trends is also important.”Increasingly, self-starters who voluntarily upskill or take part in in-house training programs will position themselves well as potential candidates for a promotion, bosses say. Belinda Lewis, HR director at IBM, says when the tech giant is considering its next generation of leaders, it is not looking just for breadth and depth in a person’s skillset, but also demonstrated markers of leadership potential.”In my experience, a successful track record of applying skills and attributes such as a growth mindset, emotional intelligence or agile practices to real-life business challenges is indicative of leadership potential,” she says.

Lewis recalls a project where a significant deadline was missed because of an undisclosed mistake and a graduate who, despite being the most junior in the team, took the initiative to speak to the project leader privately, explaining why the error had not been reported.”The project leader was considered by most of the members of the team to be unapproachable and a micro-manager,” Lewis says.”The graduate was courageous enough to give the leader constructive feedback about his style and the impact it was having on members of the team. Fast forward to today and that graduate has been promoted to project leader – one of the youngest project leaders in their division.”ING says it takes into account employees’ behavioural characteristics and their fundamental capabilities when looking to promote from within. Fiona Monfrooy, executive director of human resources at the Australian arm of the Dutch bank, says it is a balance. “We take the behavioural side very seriously,” she says. 

ING weighs up candidates’ range of behaviours against its internal “orange code”, a list of traits and attitudes the bank expects from employees. The code entails taking responsibility for completing tasks, helping others to be successful by putting personal agendas aside and being “one step ahead” by challenging conventions and one’s own assumptions.

ING employees are encouraged to have their own development plan which plots their leadership journey. Big four bank ANZ also encourages staff to take advantage of secondment opportunities.

“It’s another great way, even within the organisation, to be stretching yourself and developing a breadth of experience and demonstrating adaptability,” says Kathryn van der Merwe, group executive talent and culture at ANZ.

When promoting from within, Fortescue Metal Group’s Linda O’Farrell, director of Fortescue People, says the top five things she looks for are: value sets, motivation, the capacity to build strong teams, strong performance and track record, and a learning mindset.

Here are four things HR bosses look at when deciding who to promote internally to a leadership position.

1. Career development

The World Economic Forum predicts that that one in two workers will need to reskill and those staying in their current role will need to update 40 percent of their skillset to adapt to the changing labour market.

While a growing number of universities offer microcredentials, companies are also stepping up to offer their own internal programs to meet the skills gap and high demand areas.

ANZ has its own digital learning platform where staff can self-educate and upskill.

IBM offers an internal microcredentialling system where staff can earn badges for skill development activities and other achievements. Employees who earn digital badges tend to show engagement scores two points higher than those who do not, and staff with “skills level” badges are less likely to voluntarily leave IBM.

FMG has a suite of internal leadership programs and a career goal-setting program called Empower, while ING offers a mentoring program for top talent who are seen as future leaders. To be accepted into the program, employees need to demonstrate that they are performing well in their current role, that they have a passion to aspire and achieve more, that they are adaptable and willing to experience different environments, and that they are open and understand how to ask for help.

2. Solid soft skills

The five Cs of communication, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and computational learning are critical to all roles, according to Souness. She adds that skills such as strategic thinking and problem solving are also extremely valuable for anyone eyeing a promotion.

O’Farrell agrees.”This year has really shown that people who are resilient, adaptable and able to deal with situations that have never occurred before are the ones that are clearly going to be the next leaders,” she says.

“At the end of the day, it’s actually the people that drive our business so I’d really encourage [people] to focus on those soft skills which are actually the ones that differentiate you and make difference.”

Lewis concurs, arguing that skills and attributes such as growth mindset, resilience, agile practices, collaborative processes and technologies, learning agility, strategic thinking, analytics and data-based decision making are just as important, if not more important, to a leader’s success than job-specific skillsets and experience.

3. Cultural fit

Often the hard work begins months – if not years – before you even turn your mind to putting your hand up for a promotion. Bosses will give serious consideration to an employee’s track record.

“It is not enough for a candidate to tell us what a growth mindset is or give us a list of agile principles and practices,” says Lewis. “We look for evidence that they are applying these practices consistently within their current role to deliver success for our clients and our teams.”

When looking for leaders, companies such as FMG and ANZ want people who are role models and are aligned to the company’s values.

“Our values are really, really important so finding that beautiful fit between people that want to be a leader and who want to grow those values in our business is very important,” says O’Farrell.

ANZ takes a similar approach when promoting candidates.

“We think about it in three buckets: one is around work-fit where there is a requirement for some capability to do the work,” says van der Merwe.

“Then there’s ANZ-fit so we want people that align to our values, and importantly it’s about demonstration of our core values but also those new ways of leading.

“And the third element is around future-fit and so we want people that bring a growth mindset so we need people that are able to adapt and learn and are resilient.”

When promoting, ING is also careful to ensure it has a diversity of teams and leaders in an effort to reflect the bank’s customer base. It employs a 70 percent sameness policy. In other words, no more than 70 percent of any team or group can be from the same cultural background.

4. On the job learning

ING says there an emphasis on “on the job” experience, and formal qualifications are positively viewed. IBM says it is moving away from expecting and requiring formal qualifications and giving greater consideration to experiential learning and diverse experience.

“Candidates with non-traditional career paths, who may have the right types of experience, skills and aptitudes to fill a wide variety of roles, are proving to be impressive hires across the technology ecosystem,” Lewis says.

“Being certified in today’s job market isn’t everything, and while we have a clear roadmap for staff to acquire the skillsets required for any given role, an individual’s learning aptitude and strategic abilities are just as important when considering eligibility for promotion.”



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