If you are a fan of the Netflix show Mindhunter, you’re familiar with criminal profiling. It’s fascinating to watch federal agents piece together a psychological analysis of a criminal using only the physical evidence of the crime scene.
Profiling plays a critical role in leadership development. We consultants don’t have it as hard as the FBI, though. Our challenge is not a lack of evidence, but the contrary; we have immediate access to the person being profiled along with an entire industry of leadership tools available. Our challenge is being able to balance the science available with subjective observations that are necessary when assessing people. In this respect, profiling leaders is more often an art than a science.
Profiling As A Process
Profiling is the process of providing a description of the person based on their distinct characteristics. Unlike FBI profiling, which is about problem-solving (i.e., finding a criminal), the purpose of profiling leaders should be to identify how to best tap into their strengths. In other words, it should be about focusing on the positives of a person and not about trying to fix a supposed deficiency or rectifying an alleged fault.
A profile, if professionally done, provides you three key pieces of information:
• What the person is naturally good at and likely to do.
• Which factors or conditions support their strengths; likewise, which ones detract from or inhibit them.
• What professional areas need to be developed so the leader can better leverage their strengths and potentially rise to the next level of responsibility.
Simply put, a leader profile is a principal guide in the developmental process. It establishes a baseline to measure performance, individually and within the team. It also provides guidance to assist senior leadership in better managing and developing the leader.
An effective profile is a combination of at least four different areas. You must balance a person’s natural behaviors with their personal motivators, then gauge their level of proficiency in certain leadership competencies along with their maturity level.
Of all the areas in a profile, behavioral analysis is the most fascinating. Some people call it mind-reading. It’s not if you’re using a qualified, scientific tool.
Behaviors describe the “how,” or the manner of action, versus the “why,” or the psychological motivation. The “how” matters a lot, as it impacts perceptions, performance, processes and systems.
This information is the starting point for ensuring a person’s strengths are effectively deployed. Likewise, if they are not, then something in the environment is hindering them. This is a trigger for further probing.
Unfortunately, a common practice today is to present the results of a behavioral survey as the sole profile. This is misleading and wrong. Behaviors tell you nothing about proficiency in leadership skills or competencies, and they say nothing about maturity levels in terms of managing emotions.
This is the closest you’ll get to psychology when profiling leaders. Motivators explain what makes a person get up and roll out of bed and go to work. They tell you a lot about a person in respect to their decision-making, their relationships, their risk tolerance and overall effectiveness as contributors.
Say your top motivator is job security. What will your comfort level be in giving frank, honest feedback to the boss, especially when the pressure is on both of you? Or, consider this example from the boss’s perspective: How must she work with you given this information? Or, finally, imagine that this self-awareness is not known by either party, and business continues as usual.
A profile should list only a few key motivators at a given time. Why? Because they evolve over the years. Think about it: Compare what motivates you now to when you were 25 years old. This is why motivators should not be interpreted from the results of the behavioral survey. Instead, they should be captured during one-on-one interviews.
Competencies enable us to replicate success in completely different situations or circumstances. These general bodies of knowledge serve as the foundation for effective skill development. For instance, the skill of strategic planning is arguably easier to grasp than the competency of strategic thinking.
So, how can we effectively evaluate competencies in a profile? Traditionally, consultants collect assessments on leaders using 360s from peers and subordinates along with evaluations from superiors. This has some value, but the information is secondhand and often biased.
In my experience, nothing beats direct observation. This is where experiential workshops pay off. Experiential workshops vary in creativity and especially in relevance to the role. I’ve participated in some where teams work together, like military staff playing computer wargames. The responsibilities and competencies mimic those required in large organizations. The consultant, and even the leader’s superiors, observe the leader and teammates communicate, plan and lead under pressure. Proficiency in competencies is unknowingly revealed. Basically, you’re witnessing a microcosm of life in the office. Most importantly, the data gained is firsthand, ample and indisputable.
Leaders may have the ideal behaviors and knowledge set, but their maturity level matters. It impacts performance, morale and, of course, office politics. Mostly, maturity will tell you if the person is coachable.
Measuring maturity is subjective and must be done cautiously. Maturity means many things: managing emotions in victory and defeat, being intellectually honest in discussions of performance, knowing which “hill to die on” during disagreements and, first and foremost, understanding that you exist to serve the customer.
Luckily for the profiler, information on this fourth area is easily collected during the first three areas of the profile.