Internal Candidates not Filling Skills Gaps? You Might Need a New Strategy

Internal Candidates not Filling Skills Gaps? You Might Need a New Strategy

Qualified internal candidates are often overlooked in favor of outside hires, Wade Burgess, vice president of LinkedIn Talent Solutions, observes at the Harvard Business Review—and being overlooked for a promotion is a significant driver of attrition. Burgess has some theories as to why this is happening, foremost of which is that hiring managers don’t see their internal candidates as having the right skills:

Hiring managers think existing employees lack the exact skill match they’re hoping to find, or hiring managers are looking for newer skills that aren’t in evidence yet at their organization. Here’s a common scenario when it comes to the former: A hiring manager shares a healthy list of job requirements and asks their recruiter to find someone who fits the bill. But it’s tough to find candidates whose skills fit precisely, especially given the pace of change today. Skills evolve and emerge so rapidly that unless you have an organization-wide focus on professional learning and development, it’s unlikely that your team will be able to perform their day job while staying current on the latest skills — especially when it comes to tech-focused roles.

Jobs themselves are changing quickly, too. As the World Economic Forum notes, “Jobs exist now that we’d never heard of a decade ago. One estimate suggests that 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that aren’t on our radar yet.” That’s already happening today. Consider professionals working as app developers, social media managers, or driverless car engineers. Five years ago, if a hiring manager had been searching for those skills in their workforce, they’d be hard pressed to find them. Yet somehow, people with no specific experience with those roles were able to tackle them successfully.

As it happens, my colleagues and I at CEB have been thinking a lot lately about internal leadership candidates and how best to develop them while conducting our latest research on high-potential talent strategies. Most organizations expect at least 40 percent of their senior leadership roles to look significantly different in the next five years. In an environment where leadership requirements are changing faster and in more unpredictable ways than ever, organizations’ high-potential strategies are trying—and largely failing—to hit a moving target. One common strategy is to try and hedge against future skill gaps by rotating potential leaders through different jobs to diversify their skills and experience and improve their agility to cope with changing leadership requirements.

Development is undoubtedly an important component of any HIPO strategy, but our research finds that this particular strategy is not as successful as many believe.

Not only does increasing a leader’s number of experiences fail to build her agility, high-performing leaders also tend to have “spiky” skill profiles (excelling at a few specific things) as opposed to general ones. Organizations with strategies focused on individual agility are in fact more likely to indicate a lack of confidence in their internal talent’s readiness for specific leadership positions.

If it’s not about individual agility, what can organizations do to prepare high-potential talent for uncertain leadership needs? We find that organizations tend to do best when they focus on two key things: Creating more agile HIPO processes that can adapt as organizational needs change, rather than trying to create more agile people; and developing enterprise leaders who can leverage the complementary skill sets of their team and network to fill gaps on their own and respond to changing circumstances, rather than trying to build “purple unicorns” who excel at every necessary skill.

CEB Corporate Leadership Council members: Be sure to register for our upcoming webinar on October 14, on how to build a more agile HIPO strategy that works.