Are You a Battle-Tested Leader?

There is a saying, “Some people are lost in the fire and some are built from it.” These words ring true when it comes to identifying high-potential candidates for C-level positions. Those candidates that have had to overcome major life or business obstacles have risen to the top because their experiences have prepared them for the challenges of C-level leadership. This trend is so prevalent that, at Executives Unlimited, we spend as much time probing on the adversity that candidates have faced as we do learning about their successes.

Diverse Backgrounds

Diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds have proven to be a valuable foundation for extraordinary leadership. These different perspectives often result in greater adaptability, open-mindedness, and curiosity not always present or fostered in mainstream establishment. Candidates from other cultures also often have a broader global view and are more confident global citizens, which makes for stronger leaders.

We once met with an extraordinary candidate who emigrated with her family from a foreign country and were tragically attacked at sea. Her father and mother were killed and she and her brother were left for dead. After several days they were rescued by the Coast Guard and later taken in by foster care and luckily, adopted. She and her brother are now married, each raising a family of their own. Both she and her brother worked their way through college graduate studies and now respectively earned positions in high level leadership roles.

Further evidence of this was described by Forbes, who reported that 25% of the high tech companies founded between 1995 and 2005 had at least one immigrant founder, and 75% of the companies funded by American venture capital had “one core foreign born team member such as CEO, CTO, or VP of Engineering.”

Putting Education to Work

While Ivy League educations are impressive and certainly many successful leaders have prestigious education credentials, we find that a large percentage of our next generation of leaders bring a solid undergraduate experience from a reputable, non-Ivy League college or university. What’s even more telling, however, is how the candidate earned his or her degree. We have seen that those who paid their own way, worked a job during college, or attended an evening or executive program while working, consistently have a work ethic and drive that gives them an edge when rising through the ranks.

“When hiring, U.S. business leaders say the amount of knowledge the candidate has in a field, as well as applied skills, are more important factors than where a candidate attended school or what their college major was,” reported researchers in a Gallup poll in 2014.

Unique Experiences

Nothing can trump hard-won experience when looking for the perfect candidate. As noted above, prior C-level experience is not a must, but rather, a history navigating difficult experiences both on and off the job is a key indicator of how well a candidate will adapt to the challenges of a C-level role. Examples of great leaders who have had to overcome adversity abound:

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, rose from poverty in a low-income housing environment and juggled two jobs selling newspapers and working in a local café starting at the age of 12.

Patricia Woertz rose to President and CEO of Archer Daniels Midland after beginning her career as an accountant and working her way up in the finance departments of Gulf Oil and Chevron. Growing up, Woertz’s mother, Vi, was a librarian who believed summer vacations should be used for educational purposes. As a result, Woertz and her brother, Chuck, did not spend their summers dallying on the beaches like many of their peers. Instead, they toured corporate and industrial America, a unique experience to be sure.

Recent research reported by the Harvard Business Review included an analysis of CEO changes and successions over the past five years at Global 100 companies, and uncovered that boards are now looking to find less-seasoned executives who embrace disruptive technologies and take bold risks, passing by existing C-level executives for the promotion.

Rethinking Success

Organizations looking to fill key leadership roles need to broaden how they assess potential candidates. Research and real life experience suggest that the fanciest pedigree doesn’t always yield the best results. Look for candidates that bring diverse backgrounds and thinking to your team, and most of all, look for individuals that have been “battle tested” both in their lives and on the job. How candidates have overcome difficult situations is a great indicator of how they will your organization’s challenges.

At Executives Unlimited, we are committed to identifying proven leaders across organizational and corporate functions that inspire your corporate vision. For information on our process and services, please call us at (866) 957-4466 or contact us online today.

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