senior director of research, korn ferry institute
This Week in Leadership
5 Ways to Avoid Job-Search Exhaustion
Sure, the job market has picked up, but all searches are time-consuming. Experts weigh in on how not to run out of steam.
With the global economy becoming fiercely reliant on knowledge, technology, and innovation, many jobs today require highly specialized talent. And as companies focus on their core competencies—the select things they do particularly well—to achieve strategic competitiveness, their success increasingly depends on deep levels of expertise in their workforce, not simply good management and leadership skills (Bersin 2009). General Electric, for example, is shifting from developing “jack of all trade” generalists to valuing subject-area expertise more. “The world is so complex, we need people who are pretty deep,” Susan Peters, who heads GE’s executive development, has said in published interviews.
Despite the importance of this specialized talent segment to organizations’ success, when it comes to talent management practices, professionals with high expertise are often under-emphasized. Instead, many organizations focus on finding, grooming, and retaining highpotential employees (Church et al. 2013), often defined as those with the potential to take on an increasingly broad scope of leadership responsibilities. Organizations have made an outsized proportion of direct and indirect investment in high-potential talent. In 2008, all 20 major corporations surveyed said they had high-potential programs (Silzer and Church 2009). In another survey of 45 companies worldwide, 98% said they purposefully identify high potentials (Ready, Conger, and Hill 2010). Further, the highest rewards in business and industry traditionally have been conferred on those who assume people management–leadership responsibility. Rising up the organizational hierarchy has been the surest path to increases in status, recognition, and salary. Finding and developing future business leaders is and should be a critical priority for organizations. But investing in just those employees with the potential to succeed in leadership roles can be risky.
Many specialized professionals—scientists, analysts, designers, engineers, accountants, architects, doctors, and consultants among them—are more interested in developing their professional expertise than in pursuing a general management career track. They find little to no appeal in a path that would take them out of their area of specialization. One study found that more than two-thirds of talented, deep experts prefer a career track geared toward technical aspects of their respective area of expertise (Allen and Katz 1986). At Korn Ferry, business leaders who grapple with these issues often ask us questions like: “How can I develop high performers who aren’t interested in climbing the corporate ladder or managing people?” “Is there another way to get decent development investment for my experts besides designating them as high potentials?” “How can I keep my valuable, functional experts engaged?” Forcing
high-performing professional employees into general management not only runs against their natural career orientation but also may undermine sustained growth for the organization. Companies that depend on having a deep bench of expert talent to drive innovation could find that bench depleted if they fail to provide alternative reward structures and advancement opportunities for these high professionals.
High professionals are individuals who have the capacity and interest to continuously develop their expertise for effective performance in progressively more challenging roles within their specialties. At the highest level, they can either be the most senior individual contributors, with titles such as scientist fellows or chief engineers, or, when equipped with leadership skills, they can lead their functional area in roles such as chief technological officer or chief science officer.
To effectively manage this increasingly important talent pool, organizations must identify what characterizes these experts, what drives them, and how they differ from and are similar to high potentials. While many studies have been conducted about the characteristics of high potentials in becoming leaders, there is considerably less such research about high professionals. So Korn Ferry embarked on a multiphase research initiative to develop a better understanding of what makes a successful high professional.
First, Korn Ferry interviewed 31 senior individual contributor and management-level participants nominated by their organizations as talented, deep experts. Participants represented a range of industries, professions, and geography. They included engineers, scientist, physicians, financial analysts, clinical psychologists, and musicians. They answered questions about role preferences, events that shaped their career decisions, likes and dislikes at work, challenging experiences and lessons they learned from them, memorable achievements, and future aspirations.
An analysis of the findings provides a clear, descriptive picture of high professionals: most tend to have (and desire) a linear career path, they are intrinsically motivated by their job, and they have a strong desire to be recognized and respected for their expertise. They cite administrative or “busy work” and office politics as the biggest disruptors to their effectiveness and express a desire for autonomy and independent decision making in their roles.
High professionals and high potentials both:
While high professionals have their own distinctive characteristics, the research showed that they share some characteristics with high potentials, most notably their attitude toward challenges. Like high potentials, high professionals want to be challenged. High professionals and their high-potential counterparts are thrilled to solve complex problems. And both groups possess a strong desire for achievement.
The two groups also share perceptions of how learning contributes to their career success. In the case of high professionals, they tend to recognize that their professions constantly evolve. They understand they must learn continuously—on the job, from mistakes, and from other experts. “Don’t feel too comfortable with what you’re doing today because you’re going to have to reinvent yourself tomorrow,” said one participant in the study.
High professionals also stress the importance of self-awareness. Because previous research has linked self-awareness to leadership effectiveness, this represents another overlap between high professionals and high potentials. “Know your strengths and weaknesses,” one respondent observed. “Know where you belong in the broad context and what role you can play in the broader context.”
Based on the findings from the first phase of research, Korn Ferry turned to statistically measuring differences in role preference, motivation, and engagement for high potentials and high professionals. The results were compelling. Based on global data analyzed from close to 11,000 assessments, three dimensions emerged that define a continuum of career orientation:
A focus on high potentials to fuel the leadership succession pipeline will remain a vital lever for business leaders in the years ahead. In a business reality where sustained growth is anything but easy, maximizing the return on talent investment means leveraging all high-performing talent, both leadership and expert. Armed with fresh insights into the key talent segment of high professionals, organization leaders will be better able to differentiate talent to ensure success in critical roles; strengthen the value of expertise-driven career paths; and drive performance, engagement, and retention for all high performers.