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How it is only 7 jobs to the top

Leadership drives performance. Leadership at all levels drives exceptional performance.

All organisations need a supply of leaders to deliver today and for the future. They need to be confident they have a system in place that produces the leadership talent they need.

But too many don't, their succession plans are thin and static. They are not growing their stock of leaders, they are using it up.

Fixing it feels like a gargantuan task. New processes. New development programmes. New assessment tools. Work, work , work.

But maybe, if we look at it from a different perspective we can start to lighten the collective load.

To get to the top takes on average 7 jobs. 7 jobs to be at the point where you can be in line to be considered as a potential CEO. That few.

3 or 4 of those are likely to be in a functional specialism, 3 or 4 in line leadership roles, running a P&L for a business unit.

Each role will increase responsibility and increase complexity. Most will be promotions, the odd one may be a lateral move.

Of course, the majority of us don’t have this career velocity. And we are not in line to be a CEO. But for the few who do, they do go at this pace.

7 roles makes you think. Each job has to add something to the jigsaw puzzle of leadership track record. Starting from early days.

It is hard to catch up later if a piece of the puzzle is not there from the beginning. Only 7 roles to build the business acumen, the people acumen and communication skills.

We need to be making bets not hedging bets.

The average age of a new FTSE 100 CEO was 52.5 last year. This means 7 stints of between 3 and 4 years in each role. 1 year to understand and make changes. 1 year to deliver results. 1 + years to show it wasn’t just chance and to expand the role before moving on.

To move at this velocity means that existing leaders are taking risks. They are promoting candidates to positions, when there are better qualified candidates. Critically, to support success, they are providing hand on support and guidance.

It also means a critical role for HR.

What needs to be there to fuel this career velocity.

The fuel is created by the existing senior leadership teams.

1. A culture where leaders spot, work with and sponsor up and coming talent from entry level. This needs a clear sighted point of view of what exceptional leadership looks like. And it needs senior leader time investment.

2. A culture where roles are shaped as development assets. Because they are so valuable, these assets are carefully managed and freed up when needed.

3. A culture where it is OK to say it is not working. Stars are not anointed and then progressed, come what may. They need to be continuously challenged and evaluated. They need to demonstrate they have the acumen they need for the level they are working at now. If not, they need to be moved.

Leaders spotting leaders at all levels

Leaders need to be responsible for spotting and developing the next leaders. It cannot be delegated to the HR team or a 3rd party assessment tool. It can only come from the leaders.

Why? Because leaders have the best view of the leadership the organisation needs now. They also have the best view of what the organisation will need in future. And they have the most important tool to help leaders thrive, their input and support.

To make this work at all levels, leaders need the courage to say, “this person has something special,” and then back their point of view with action.

The something special is impossible to define beyond a certain point of accuracy. But it is a mix of

  • sharp business acumen

  • personal ambition and drive

  • people leadership

  • communication skills

  • willingness to keep on learning,

  • having a clear approach to how they improve themselves

  • making stuff happen

For more senior leaders in the top 3 or 4 ranks of the business this is fairly easy to spot. By this stage they are running a division or product area. The numbers are small, and they have day to day contact with other senior leaders. Business results tell their own story. They will be demonstrating their leadership acumen on a daily basis.

By this stage they are “each way bets”. It is about proving leadership in different contexts and at higher levels of complexity. A formal process will, to a large extent, take over.

For the people in the middle of the organisation and at the start of their careers, this is tougher as the leadership potential signals are weaker.

They are harder to see as the leader is unlikely to work with them directly. There are lots of them. Their work is predominantly technical. Their results are harder to separate out from team effort.

This means senior leaders need to be active in searching them out. They need to be active in putting themselves in places where they can meet these people and see them at work.

And at this level we are only talking about “hunches”.

This is the level that most leaders do not play at.

In too many organisations the senior team do not know who their level 5 and 6 future leaders. They don't have a method to find them or to see them at work. If they rely on a talent process, they won’t know about their business acumen or development needs.

When leaders do find people they have a hunch will move on to great things, they then have to invest time

  • Spend time with their hunch, seeing how they work, exploring how they think, teaching them about business

  • Spend time to talk to others, to make sure their view is accurate and they are getting the whole picture

  • Spend time working with their hunch to build out a development plan. This plan needs to identify strengths, fill in weaknesses and identify what is needed for the next stretch role.

  • Spend time keeping their ears open for and seeking out the right type of opportunity that is coming up in the organisations

The leader not only adds great content and a business view. They control access to roles.

They have the social power where the ability to check in motivates enough to deliver. This delivery is in itself, a great indicator of success. No senior leader involvement, too often no development plan.

The leader also has a coaching role to open the door of possibility. By creating and bringing to life the vision of possibility they do more than encourage. They make the person believe in themselves to the extent that that they feel compelled to move forward to fulfil their potential.

A culture of seeing critical roles and experiences as valuable assets

A standard process allocates the roles on a mix of seniority and proven ability to do the job. Proven ability is valued

We are looking at a different approach here. We are looking to bring in an asset management approach to key role allocations. The portfolio of allocating roles between development roles and proven talent balances risk.

In a fast growing business there is a regular supply of new roles and growth roles. Who gets them becomes key. It is an allocation task.

In a slow or flat growth organisation there are very few new roles and lots of competition for them. This is a creation task.

To make this idea work needs both a process for identifying key roles and assignments. It also needs a process for discussing the key leadership talent and what they need next to be tested at the next level.

The flip of this is that organisations need to be prepared to do one of the hardest things, free up roles. This keeps a flow of movement in critical roles where the next generation needs exposure and experience. Again, a lot easier if there is growth!

Calling it out when it doesn’t work

Predicting future leaders is not an exact science. Some people just don’t live up their early potential.

They can still be great performers and assets to the business. But they aren’t on track to be a succession candidate for the CEO.

This can be tough. Leaders have invested their reputation in the success of a person. To say that it is not working takes honesty and guts.

There are ways to design the system to avoid this and get around the subconscious biases of endowment and expectancy effects. More on biases

Each leader needs to have more than one person they are sponsoring. For more senior roles, there needs to be a process that involves the leadership team as a whole.

The other mistake is missing good people. They may be late to the party. Their leadership acumen isn’t, for whatever reason, noticed until later but then shines through.

As long as they can find a leader to sponsor them, then nothing stops them being added to the process. It is a mistake to say you can only join at the start

What is the role of HR and Talent in all of this?

Leaders are the key to drive leadership career velocity. HR has a vital role to cajole and facilitate.

Key actions

  • Set the tone that leaders are expected to find other leaders and to develop them.

  • Keep a visible scorecard of who succeeds in creating most leaders.

  • Look for velocity as an indicator for future leadership potential.

  • Get out there to identify future talent. Introduce senior leaders to them.

  • Provide a language about leader identification, but not a straitjacket. The science around prediction is clear. The best comes from diverse people using more than one model. The word predictions come from a single expert using a single model.

  • Allow people to progress as fast as the business wants. Don’t impose brakes, like a person can only be promoted once in 2 years. They will just go elsewhere.

  • Help leaders to reduce the risks when promoting people by providing great transition support.

  • For more senior leaders, facilitate the two critical conversations;

  1. Who needs to go where to develop to the next level.?

  2. Who needs to move to create space?

  • Build out other career paths and routes. Being CEO is not the only career path. It is super important for business performance, but most employees need a different set of pathways to aspire to.


Leadership at all levels drives performance for today and creates succession depth for the future. One of the key leadership roles we are looking to build for is the CEO.

As it only takes 7 roles to the top, the logic is simple.

As the number 1 driver for progression is outstanding success in the current role, the numbers also say that to have the pool for CEO succession gives you leadership performance at other levels.

To have supply for this we need to be identifying people at all levels and actively managing their development. As the key development driver is experience in more and more challenging contexts, the key intervention is to actively manage career tracks.

To do this requires the existing leaders to be actively involved as they both control the access to the next role and they are the best source of support and guidance as people progress.

HR has to facilitate this. They need to make sure there is activity in middle and bottom of the organisation as well as managing the process for the senior few.

To find out more about our thinking on developing leaders look here

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