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How do you make sure your next leader isn’t a cultural misfit?

Posted on Jan 22, 2017

Searching for the next generation of business leaders represents one of the biggest headaches for any organization. Most rely on development programs that rotate visible high fliers, emphasizing the importance of leadership attributes such as integrity, collaboration, a results-driven orientation, and customer-oriented behavior. Many, understandably, also look outside the organization to fill key roles despite the costs and potential risks of hiring cultural misfits.

Far fewer, though, scan systematically for the hidden talent that often lurks unnoticed within their own corporate ranks. Sometimes those overlooked leaders remain invisible because of gender, racial, or other biases. Others may have unconventional backgrounds, be reluctant to put themselves forward, or have fallen off (or steered clear of) the standard development path. Regardless of the cause, it’s a wasted opportunity when good leaders are overlooked, and it can leave individuals feeling alienated and demotivated.

To identify promising candidates for promotion who are not on the list of usual suspects, companies need to apply more rigor and better tools than many currently use. Proactive efforts are the key—think “hunting” as opposed to “harvesting” those who present themselves. In this article, we describe the causes of the hidden-leader problem in more detail and propose a few techniques for addressing it. Some are technology enabled. And all are grounded in real-world experience like that of the global head of organizational development and talent management at one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, who told us recently, “We have increasingly been thinking about how to tap into our hidden leaders so as to unleash the full potential of the organization in a more systematic way.”

The rewards can be significant. Expanding a company’s leadership capacity is not only valuable in itself; it can be inspirational for the hidden leaders who are elevated and for those around them, bringing further benefits. As that same pharmaceutical-company executive observed, “Inspired employees are productive employees.”

Why leaders stay hidden

Most organizations we know have more leadership power within their ranks than they recognize. Some individuals quickly acquire reputations as rising stars and move up the ranks as if in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Others, for a variety of reasons, may miss the fast track. Some of these eventually leave in search of new pastures, while others stay behind, without ever reaching their full potential. Either way, the skills, knowledge, and energy they could bring to the company are lost. In our experience, there are three common reasons why leaders get overlooked, none of them easily overcome by the leadership-harvesting approaches prevalent at many organizations.

Persistent challenges

The first explanation is size: in large organizations, it’s easy for hidden talent to stay hidden or be drowned out by the noise of complex organizational processes. They could be in a business unit far from the corporate center or in a backroom job away from the action. They might be quiet and reluctant to push themselves forward, eclipsed by more forceful personalities. Yet they may perform exceptionally well in their jobs, collaborate effectively with colleagues, have extensive networks across the organization, or carry informal influence among their peers. In short, they are showing signs of leadership potential, but it remains untapped because they are shielded from senior managers.

Another reason why promising future leaders go unnoticed is bias in the selection process. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Carolyn Buck Luce, and Cornel West have shown, bias can be consciously or unconsciously based on race, ethnicity, or gender, or on age, when older employees are seen as past their prime. A language “deficit,” or even a strong accent, has been known to cause people in global organizations to be penalized, as has a failure to fit conventional cultural norms. Sometimes it might be merely a one-off bad experience on a project that taints a high-potential employee’s reputation. Or it could happen to someone who steps off the conventional path for personal reasons—for example, to have a child or care for an ill family member. Managers in most organizations, notwithstanding efforts to encourage diversity and inclusion, still tend to recognize, reward, and promote people who look and behave like them and who have followed similar paths, while neglecting others whose leadership potential may be equally impressive.

Finally, there is the problem of the narrow top-down lens that senior leaders often use when looking for leadership talent. Underlying this is the mistaken assumption that only those at the top of the organization know what great leadership looks like, or a narrow focus on leadership contexts specific to the organization and the particular role. This can crowd out other perspectives, such as what individuals have achieved outside the company or what people lower down in the organization see as examples of effective leadership. A narrow lens can also interact in subtle ways with bias, as was the case for the executive at a large technology company who found it difficult to understand why a female manager wasn’t seizing more opportunities to “demo” the company’s products at major events as he and other senior leaders had done during their rise up the ranks.

This is an edited version of an article by Kevin Lane, Alexia Larmaraud, and Emily Yueh that first appeared in the McKinsey Quarterly, January 2017. For more go to