What? The Attributes to Assess

Just as the existing research literature can inform the purpose of leader assessment, it can also provide considerable insight into which particular individual attributes are the most important and how those attributes are operationally defined (Thornton et al., 2010). There are many examples of such attributes in the research literature and a clear success profile of a leader in a given role in a given organization, with the requisite level of detail to match the purpose(s) of assessment, must be defined (Byham et al., 2002; Shippmann et al., 2000).

As noted earlier, for assessments to have the maximum impact on leader development, there must be a strong connection between what is being assessed and what determines leader success in an organization (Schippmann, 1999). As Howard (2001, p. 414) notes, ‘the assessment design process requires an understanding of the talent implications of the organization’s strategic and cultural priorities’. This cannot be achieved unless two issues are addressed: 1) how an organization’s strategic and cultural priorities translate into leader role requirements; and 2) how those role requirements translate into a list of attributes required for success (Schneider & Konz, 1989).

While understanding the requirements of a role and converting these into a list of operationally defined individual attributes required for success is a challenge common to assessment design for any occupation, it is particularly challenging in the context of leaders and leadership development, for several reasons. Leadership development focuses on preparing individuals for broad roles that are contextual to a given organization. Despite a focus on broad roles, there is a need for specificity of attributes across the full range of descriptors - behaviours, knowledge, traits - depending on assessment purpose. Finally, criterion-validated knowledge about which leader attributes lead to success is hard to come by (Howard & Thomas, 2010). Given these challenges, both the role requirements of leaders in a given organizational context and the attributes that best enable success in carrying out these roles across situations could be better understood (Dierdorff, Rubin & Morgeson, 2009).

With these challenges in mind, we share what research has to offer for improving our understanding of leader role requirements and attributes that best enable success in enacting them. In particular, we review the process of choice for translating organizational strategy into leader role requirements - competency modelling - and the debates regarding its usefulness. We also review literature on leader effectiveness and consider themes within this vast research that may contribute to understanding which individual leader attributes, or categories of leader attributes, best enable leader role enactment.

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