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Human Resources

Why excellent leaders are not always the obvious candidates

Published 30 December 2021 in Human Resources • 7 min read

Companies should take more risks when it comes to appointing leaders – then give their selected candidates the right support. 

 

Leaders don’t always look like leaders. Many people rise in companies on the basis of the abilities, skills and knowledge they show, being slotted into roles where they obviously can be successful, then being more than happy to contribute their bit. Their goal isn’t to run the company they are in, but to play a crucial role in running a core part of that company.  

Their success in such roles, however, can blind others to the potential some of them have to go further. That’s particularly true for those who prefer not to push themselves into the limelight. Yet to judge people on their track record alone, and not to examine their potential, can mean overlooking some hidden gems.

Candidate ambidextrous leaders

The candidate 

Take, for example, Maikel Klomp. Three years ago, he made the switch from product manager to strategic executive at the head of a business unit. Born in the Netherlands in 1971, he graduated from Eindhoven University of Technology in 1997 with a degree in engineering, then immediately started working for Philips as a procurement manager. Over the next two decades, he excelled in a succession of challenging roles in the company’s lighting division (known as Signify since 2016).  

The biggest turning point in his career came in 2018, when he was appointed vice president of strategy and marketing for Signify’s LED business group. From then he moved on in quick succession, first to being vice president for its Americas consumer segment, then, in March this year, to head up WiZ Connected, its smart lighting business. 

Klomp has lived up to the company’s expectations, including playing a major role in making two significant acquisitions. Yet before he made the leap to being a strategy level executive three years ago, it hadn’t been an obvious progression. Klomp had many of the key attributes needed to head up a business unit: the strong structural thinking needed to be able to simultaneously compartmentalize things and see how they can work together; the creativity to come up fresh ideas; and knowledge about the business ecosystem in which he would be working.  

In his previous posts, he had repeatedly demonstrated an ability to master complex topics, foster the collaboration needed to get teams to work together and be entrepreneurial (among his successes was starting from the ground up the LED bulbs category for Philips Lighting and accelerating its growth by expanding distribution to virtually every country in the world, resulting in doubling the turnover year after year). 

He also knew that these attributes had given him a platform to go further. “I was a candidate because of my proven skills in understanding the business and the industry and also at defining winning strategies,” he says.  

But other factors were holding him back. Klomp willingly concedes that climbing the corporate ladder had never been an important personal goal. Yes, he had always been ambitious, but not in a way that marked him out as wanting to be a leader. “I was and I still am very ambitious,” he says. “But my ambition was to launch products and grow the business. It was the content  and great teams and people that motivated me, not my own career ladder.”  

If he were to make that transition, three areas needed addressing: 

  1. Could he operate at a level where it was impossible to know every detail of what was happening beneath him? Could he let go of the drive that had led him to master all the ins and outs of a business which had served him so well earlier in his career? 
  2. Would he have the temperament to handle interactions with executives at the highest level of company? His ability to manage downwards wasn’t in question – he had always handled his teams well – but could he handle the executives above him?  
  3. Was his personality suited to leadership? “Maikel has always been calm and soft-spoken. The question was whether he could build his authority so that people would see him as a leader,” says Rowena Lee, CEO of Signify’s Digital Products Division, and one of the leaders who had to decide his fate
“My advice would be for organizations to truly understand their people. Often their capabilities are not just what you see they are deeper than that”
- Maikel Klomp

Making things work 

Klomp’s bosses decided the risk was worth taking, selecting him over external candidates with far greater strategy experience. But they also knew that there were issues that he needed to address, which they could address by giving him the right support. “We were very explicit when he went into this role that there were couple of things with which he had to challenge himself,” says Lee. “But we also knew that you don’t just dump a person into the river; that way they will never swim. You have the person try things out and we support them in that test.” 

Helping him add the strategic skills was straightforward. Signify’s “EDGE” portfolio of leadership development programs is specifically designed to help executives enhance their knowledge in this area. He was also teamed up with the company’s central strategy team based in Eindhoven, giving him access to a rich pool of knowhow and experience.

The second aspect – helping him develop the skills needed to interact with top-level executives – was trickier. “Some of our leaders, when they spot a weakness, go on the attack. It’s not their intention to be brutal, but that experience can be very stressful,” says Lee. Coping with behavior involves questions of character and personality that are harder to address. Klomp’s response in such situations was to meticulously overprepare: to make himself ready to answer any question that might be asked of him.

As Lee notes, this was an approach that worked. In meetings, she says, “sometimes he would be a bit defensive, and I can understand that. But he knew about it too. And then next time he would just prepare a bit more.” 

His learning, she says, was about himself: “Skills can be developed and behavior can be adapted. But personality you can’t change. For me, it’s most important that you know this: learn skills, learn about behavior, but also learn to trust yourself.” 

Lessons for us all 

Reflecting on his experience, Klomp has three suggestions for companies. “My advice would be for organizations to truly understand their people. Often their capabilities are not just what you see – they are deeper than that.” That can especially be true for those who don’t like to draw attention themselves – those who prefer to let their track record do the talking, he says. “Just because someone is introverted or doesn’t talk about things doesn’t mean they don’t have an opinion [that is worth hearing] or cannot do other things.” 

Organizations should also experiment more, taking greater risks in assigning people to projects or jobs to discover whether or not they are equipped to do them. “If my boss hadn’t given me this opportunity to move into this new area, I would have never asked to take this role. I wasn’t the kind of person to ask for [such a switch] myself – that would have been too loud.” 

Finally, whether someone succeeds or not in a new role isn’t decided by that person and their capabilities alone – the environment counts, too. Companies need to think hard about how they can surround a newly promoted executive with support. “Organizations can think they’re taking a risk by putting people in jobs that that they don’t have a track record for,” he says. “You can always say, let’s not do it – let’s put somebody experienced there. But you can also say, ‘Hey, if we create environments where, in the end, the team can still be successful, even though the person in the job isn’t the most experienced, then we’ve got learning grounds for people to prove themselves. And when they prove themselves, they get the confidence to step up to the next level. It’s that first step that makes a difference.” 

There is, of course a caveat: “If leaders dare to put people in positions where they’re not 100% sure [about how they will get on], then they should organize the environment around them. Then people can learn and not have to be afraid about failing,” says Klomp.

And, of course, businesses should measure the risk and reward for their own bottom line after investing in promotions for unproven candidates. “If only 30% of such people make the jump, then it’s still worth doing,” says Klomp. “But if you design it the right way, I think many more will succeed.” In short: with the right support, more people should be more successful. And if it doesn’t work? Then that doesn’t matter – they can return to their former role, feeling that they have tried something new and not failed. 

“If you look through my career, it’s always been the first step that makes the difference. But you need to get a chance to do the first step.”

Authors

Ric Roi

Richard Roi

Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD

Ric Roi is Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD. He is a senior business psychologist and advises boards and CEOs on matters related to board renewal, CEO succession, top team effectiveness and leadership transitions.

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