March 31, 2022

TPL Insights: Building Peak-Performance Cultures #112 – How You Can Spot the Single Most Important Skill of Future Leaders

By Rob Andrews

with paraphrased content from former YUM! Brands CEO David Novak’s article in Chief Executive Magazine March 28, 2022

As a CEO coach, I’m often asked how to best identify high potential leaders. I’ve always been a fan of Yum! Brands, and when I read this article about David Novak in Dan Bigman’s Chief Executive Magazine, I had to share it. David shares his secret sauce for identifying future leaders.

If you’re like most executives across the globe, you may be reconstituting teams right now, attracting, hiring, and promoting to fill critical leadership positions. More than ever, you’re competing for people who can adapt, overcome, and be agile. Everybody needs people who can grow in response to the rapidly changing business environment. And you want people who can get up to speed quickly in the short-term and succeed in the long-term. Your turnover costs are high enough; and you can’t afford to wait for a new leader to contribute.

If these sound like familiar challenges, David Novak has a “secret” that can help. Spotting one skill in candidates can help you solve your leadership dilemma, and it’s a skill that defines high-potential leaders: the ability to self-coach. Over Novak’s decades of executive leadership in global organizations, that’s what he hired for, that’s what he worked to develop in his teams, and that’s how he led divisions and companies to success. He didn’t always call it self-coaching, but that’s what it was.

Self-coaching encompasses the great leadership abilities: self-knowledge, a high-performance mindset, deep learning, a bias toward action that drives positive change, and of course, relentless continuous improvement. It’s a path to both humility and confidence—recognizing that you don’t have all the answers and that whatever comes, you’ll be able to grow yourself to meet new challenges. It’s a habit that can be learned, and that we can, and should, develop in our people.

How do you know if a candidate, especially a leader, is already on the right path, though? You can dig for evidence of five fundamentals.

Personal Goals and Vision

Coaching of all kinds begins with a goal. What is it we’re trying to achieve and why does it matter? People with self-coaching skills have had that important conversation with themselves and it shows. More than that, good self-coaches know the “why” behind their goals. Whenever I interviewed leaders, I looked for signs of this kind of self-awareness. Could they share specifics of their strengths, weaknesses, joy builders, joy blockers?

When you ask candidates about their greatest accomplishments, try adding this question: Why did that outcome matter to you, personally? They should be able to offer a clear answer that might include life and career goals and a description of the kind of work that brings them joy or doesn’t. They should also be able to explain, with specificity, how the new role fits into their personal vision of their future.

A Coaching Mindset

People with a coaching mindset are not defensive and always open to opportunities for growth or improvement whenever and wherever they show up. When facing challenges, self-coachers avoid the trap of negative storytelling and preconceived notions of what’s “not possible.” They often use the approach of reframing or shifting to a more positive and productive way of thinking about hurdles and problems.

One way to discover this resilience-building habit is to ask leaders about times when they’ve felt stuck or unsure how to move forward. Then, follow up by asking how they overcame any limiting thoughts or self-doubt to make progress.

A coaching mindset also encourages us to accept and learn from our mistakes, like David’s idea for Crystal Pepsi, which was named one of the worst ideas of the century by Time magazine and taught him to pay more attention to people who disagreed with him. More than once he said no to a candidate who couldn’t tell him about a mistake they made and how they handled it or what they learned from it.

A Development Plan

Having a destination is not the same as knowing how to get there, and that’s especially true when it comes to the sometimes-ambiguous steps of personal development. What do you do first? What do you do next? What could stand in your way? These are the kinds of insights you need, but there’s rarely one right answer.

Good self-coaches seek out information, education, and training. They read books, they listen to podcasts, they seek guidance from those who’ve gone before them, they sign up for coaching. It’s easy to spot this active learning tendency. I always ask two questions: “Who do you turn to or learn from when you want to up your game?” and “How do you make sure you’re staying relevant in XYZ field or as a leader?” And then …

Insightful Action

Ask them what they did with what they learned. Or if you’re discussing a big achievement, ask “How did you have to grow to make that possible?” and listen for specific actions they took to coach themselves into a new opportunity or through a challenge. You could also ask, “What are the first three things you would do to be successful in this role?” and listen for action-oriented analysis.

David puts greater weight on insightful action than any other self-coaching essential. Every day, people set goals, work on their mindset, develop plans, and then stop short of execution and change. As Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, likes to say, “First-rate execution beats first-rate strategy with second-rate execution.” David has little use for executives who get bogged down in analysis paralysis or procrastination.

An Improvement Habit

Continuous improvement relies on motivation, and too many people leave their motivation up to chance. To be driven to make the daily effort, we need to develop habits so that the effort is automatic, and we need enthusiasm and a way to make progress fun.

David looked for people who showed the required energy. They leaned forward when talking about accomplishments and goals. Their eyes would light up. They could speak with passion about their work. You can also ask how they managed setbacks on the way to a goal. David looked for people who suited up and showed up, always looking for ways to accel in their role and exceed expectations.

David loves learning and growing every day, so his final question to himself would always be: “Would I want to work for this person?”

As CEO, give yourself and your company the gift of leaders who can self-coach. It doesn’t eliminate your responsibility to coach them, but it makes that job so much more efficient, effective, and especially enjoyable.

The purpose of this blog is to share what we’re learning about leadership and identifying high potentials. In future posts, we’ll dig further into how leaders who have undergone reinvention are building companies that dominate their sectors. These are organizations that practice the nine principles we’ve observed in organizations that outperform their peers: Unified Leadership, Disciplined Hiring, Leading with Purpose, Stakeholder Engagement, Cost Leadership, Measuring Everything that Matters, Customer Experience, Clarity in Everything, and a High-Performance Mindset. If you’d like to talk about how we can help your organization, or if you’d like a thought partner, please give us a call.

Warmest Regards,

Rob Andrews
Allen Austin
Consultants in Retained Search & Leadership Advisory