Leadership by Geoff Colvin

Leadership Rx: Stretch your talent

October 20, 2009: 3:23 PM ET

Yesterday on Postcards, we talked about viewing your career as a pyramid. That's Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Carol Bartz's image. I prefer the idea of a jungle gym. Same point: In today's non-linear, difficult-to-predict environment, you should strive for diverse experience because the step-by-step ladder won't take you far enough.

I was talking about this idea with Claudio Fernandez-Araoz, senior advisor at Egon Zehnder International. He's a globetrotting Argentinian--not a headhunter like most at the big search firm, but a go-to consultant on talent development. His 2007 book, Great People Decisions, is based on research on how the best developers of talent--Southwest Airlines (LUV), McKinsey, Intuit (INTU), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and General Electric (GE), among them--manage their high-potential people. These companies stretch their execs in all directions. And the execs learn not just multiple skills but also how to be flexible.

Fernandez-Araoz's latest research involves "competency assessments" of executives in Japan--part of 6,000 or so talent assessments that Egon Zehnder conducts across the globe annually. To his surprise, Fernandez-Araoz told me, "In Japan, unlike in other countries, there's a negative correlation between age and competency." Japanese executives show higher-than-average potential early on, but later they tend to flag, according to Egon Zehnder's research.

Actually, it's not so surprising why "competency"--the firm's measure of fitness for a job--declines as Japanese executives grow older. "Their potential is not being developed because they don't switch jobs and companies and industries," Fernandez-Araoz says, adding that in Japan's age-based HR system, managers tend to get promoted for tenure, not competence. "This limits the development of the high-potentials, while lowering the overall level of competence."

So go ahead, stretch yourself. And think about the four keys to successful leadership, according to Fernandez-Araoz: strategic orientation, results orientation, influence and collaboration, and team leadership. In today's collaborative world--where success also rides on lifting confidence in all around you--team leadership, I'd guess, is most important of all of these.PATTIE signature

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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