Mind the Gap: Important Knowledge for Every Leader to Have

It is time for the company's annual talent review meetings. The CEO and his or her team sit around the boardroom table preparing to discuss each of their direct reports, and to some extent, the level below them. As part of this discussion, they will identify potential successors for each of their roles, usually identifying each as something like "Ready Now," "Ready in 1-2 Years," or "Ready in 2 Years or More." Among other things, they will also discuss the strengths and development needs of each potential successor, and the things that each should do to better prepare themselves for future, higher-level roles.

It is a scene that is commonplace in corporations around the world today. Whether a Global 1000 beverage company, a Fortune 500 transportation organization, or a private consulting firm, similar conversations are taking place once or twice a year in many organizations, typically discussing at least Director-level and above talent.

I've sat at enough of these succession management meetings to know just how similar they are. Of course, some companies have been at it longer and have had more practice, so they know how to have stronger conversations, and really focus the discussion on the right topics, but most discussions at some point include something like the following:

"OK, so let's talk about Jane Doe. We've got her slated as one of the future officers of the company, most likely the COO role, but she's got broader longer-term potential. When we last talked about her, we reviewed her key strength as getting the results -- really executing. We said she was doing well with leading people too. Our big concern was how strategic she is. I've still got concerns about this as a major development area. What does everyone else think?"

The terms used to discuss key talent are different from company to company, but in general, senior leaders are almost always looking for evidence of the following in the leaders they discuss:

Thought leadership - This is strategic or visionary leadership. In today's environment, it is also thought agility. This is about the ability to envision the future and set the direction of the company accordingly, being able to have enough agility in thinking to adjust course when needed.

Results leadership - This is about having a plan and executing it for the right short-term and long-term results.

People leadership - This is about the ability to guide and inspire, having people want to work as part of your team.

Personal leadership - This is about being a role model, and setting the best example of leadership.

It is also often true that a leader will be considered strong in one of these areas, average in another one or two, and perhaps weak in the last arena. This weakness is discussed as something of a gap, and much of the discussion will be about this "gap," whether the leader can address it, and what is needed to help.

In essence, it is the leader's relative weakness or gap that can prevent that leader from moving up and moving on, should he not know what people think about his relative weakness, or be unmoved to do anything to change in the area.

So, leader, "mind the gap." It is not incorrect to also focus on leveraging your strengths, as many leadership experts say, but it is no less important to understand how those around you see your weaknesses. A leader worth his salt knows this, and works hard on improving his relative gaps.