Why Success Profiling Engages Senior Leaders in Leadership Development

Written by Alistair Gordon, 21 Jun 2020

What are the benefits of building customised leadership frameworks by talking to senior leaders?

Getting senior leaders involved in – or rather, owning – the leadership development initiatives of their organisations is a great challenge for most L&D teams. Using a rapid success profiling methodology has enormous advantages, most important of which is these is that using success profiling methodology gets the positive attention of the senior leadership team.

This positive attention shows up in five ways:

  • Success profiling helps leaders link leadership capability development to future organisational results

  • Success profiling focuses leaders on succession planning, and motivates them to get actively involved

  • Success profiling make senior leaders re-live their journeys

  • Success profiling make senior leaders think about potential

  • Success profiles make senior leaders focus on the cost of failure

  • Success profiling leads to leaders owning leadership development initiatives

What do we mean by a success profile?

It is a capability framework built using structured interview techniques to capture the attributes demonstrated by a highly competent person in a particular role. These attributes are described as competencies (described as behaviours), personal attributes, organisation and industry knowledge, and experiences.

HFL builds a success profile through interviewing a range of executives who are working successfully in or above the role. Executives are asked to focus on what attributes will be needed by leaders in the future in order for them to be successful. HFL puts a great deal of emphasis in interviewing the right people, and quickly, so that the organisation can see the result of their time investment almost immediately.

What advantages does involving senior leaders and an external consulting team in this process generate?

1. Success profiling helps leaders link leadership capability development to future organisational results

When you ask senior leaders to look three years into the future and contemplate what success looks like, providing you have allowed them sufficient thinking time beforehand, something almost magic happens. For up to an hour, these senior leaders draw on their considerable knowledge and experience, and describe in some detail, the critical factors of leading the organisation to a successful future. They will talk about results and leadership; usually making the direct connection. This provides every L&D team with the mandate – and some enthusiastic supporters – to build that leadership capability through the execution of highly targeted programs.

2. Success profiling focuses leaders on succession planning, and motivates them to get actively involved

In the hundreds of success profiling interviews HFL has conducted with senior leaders in the last couple of years, in the vast majority of interviews, leaders talk about the need to develop new leaders and, usually, what a scarce resource they are. Leaders often also say that the organisation needs to find new leaders quickly, to maintain or extend a competitive position. By the end of the interview, most leaders are themselves reminded of how important succession planning and leader development is, and how critical their active role in successful succession planning ought to be.

3. Success profiling make senior leaders re-live their journeys

Asking senior leaders to remember how they made the transition from their previous position to the more elevated role is very productive. Most senior managers remember how difficult and stressful the transition was. They remember the early periods of getting up to speed, and can contemplate the type of help that would have been most useful for them at that time in their journeys. Many interviewees fondly remember those who helped them make the transition successfully, and quickly agree to offer the same help to those who follow. The process builds commitment to fund development programs, and to be actively involved in them.

4. Success profiling make senior leaders think about potential

The quickest way for L&D teams to deliver very high return on investment from emerging leader programs is to ensure the right people get selected to participate. Just as importantly, they must ensure the wrong people or those who have reached their performance/potential limit, do not get selected. Given that most emerging leader programs have participants selected against ‘performing now’ criteria rather than the more objective ‘has potential to perform at a higher level’ criteria, undertaking success profile interviews is a good way to break this nexus. Senior leaders are challenged to name derailers, and these are often to do with participants’ leadership styles, learning agility, and their ability to handle complexity. Of course, all of these things can be measured by the L&D team prior to selection to participate in an emerging leader program, provided there is the will and budget provided by senior leaders to ensure that the right people get on the program. Insights from success profile interviews can often be used to justify a more professional and objective selection process, ensuring a steady supply of leaders who can lead at the next level, emerge from the programs.

5. Success profiles make senior leaders focus on the cost of failure

What happens when someone who is not prepared, who cannot successfully make the transition, gets promoted? How bad is the fallout? Making senior leaders consider these questions has many benefits for the emerging leaders program. Firstly, when asked to quantify the cost of a bad promotion in a large organisation, senior leaders usually measure the cost in millions of dollars. These are handy statistics to remember when L&D teams are trying to justify the cost of designing and rolling out emerging leader programs properly. Secondly, getting senior leaders to focus on the non-financial cost of clearing up disasters focuses them, we’ve found, very quickly on making sure such disasters do not reoccur. Good people lost, opportunities missed, lost clients, difficult decisions to be made — memories of corporate succession disasters are usually raw and painful for senior leaders. Consequently, they are very helpful in ensuring the appropriate leadership development investment is made by the organisation.

6. Success profiling leads to leaders owning leadership development initiatives

HFL has been involved with the development hundreds of leadership development programs. Some have lasted a short while, and then lost funding. Some are still around years after inception (much refined and developed, of course). Programs that stand the test of time are owned - and actively supported – by the senior leaders in the organisation. Those that falter are often seen as initiatives of the L&D department, not the organisation. Success profiling is a key contributor to getting engagement and ownership residing with the senior leadership team, enabling the L&D team to play their most effective role: facilitating the program design and management, dealing with suppliers, and helping participants along their journey.


The benefits of success profiling are clear and proven, and at HFL we would be delighted to introduce you to several clients who have used success profiling to great effect.

Could success profiling be done internally, without external consultants? The answer is almost certainly yes, but at HFL we see senior executives taking the process more seriously, being more open and honest about their own journey as well as those of others, when they are in the company of a senior external consultant rather than an employee of the business. As galling as this reality must be for senior, highly qualified L&D professionals working inside organisations as employees (who are perfectly capable of executing these structured interviews), this has been our experience.

Please contact us for references, examples of success profiles, and ask us how we can manage to produce a detailed success profile and associated leadership capability framework in just a matter of a few weeks.

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