Top Management Potential: Qualities to Cultivate, and How to Uplift Internal Talent

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11/30/2023

As part of its ongoing efforts to highlight association members, AEM recently connected with Don Townsend, president of AEM service member company Donley Townsend Associates and a member of AEM’s Workforce Development Committee, to discuss all things workforce, and what employees typically do in the first 10 years of their careers to have the best shot at reaching top management positions. Townsend additionally gives advice to current executives looking to cultivate that talent within their organization.

AEM: For executive management searching for top talent, and looking to cultivate that within their organization, what advice would you give to them?

Townsend: My advice would be to go back and take a real objective look at the talent that you already have. Companies might not be objective about the talent that they have in-house, and it’s an old truism that familiarity breeds contempt. Companies don’t see talent that they have at the next level below the C-suite because they’ve often been around for years, and management already knows their blind spots as well as their strengths. Take another look at the people you already have and try to stay objective. Secondly, in choosing people for top management positions, I encourage companies to not be too impressed by those who have changed jobs every few years. You want to hire someone who has made mistakes, has had to live with those mistakes and has learned from them over time.

AEM: How can you tell which employees have potential for top management positions?

Townsend: I look for people who have curious minds and have developed an organized way of taking in information about the industry from multiple sources. I frequently ask questions like ‘how do you keep up with developments within the industry?’. When looking for candidates that have high potential, particularly when you are looking at young people, it isn’t productive to look for the person who has done every job perfectly. Look at the people who had the toughest job, and examine the hurdles they had to overcome and the lessons they learned. If the job is low difficulty and an employee knocks it out of the park, that’s nice, but if a job is high difficulty and the employee had to overcome challenges to complete it then they can bring a lot more to the table. Look for the people who raise their hand and volunteer for those tough projects.

AEM: What role do early promotions play in reaching top management?

Townsend: I went back and dug up old candidate reports from searches going back 25 years, and the correlation between people who eventually reached the top and people who got promoted at their first company out of school is very high. I would say that the key factors in receiving a promotion within the first 5 years of employment include excellent performance in your discipline, strong interpersonal skills and expanding your horizons to learn about other disciplines within your organization. These efforts over time lead to the development of characteristics that companies value in senior leaders, such as the mental preparedness to spot trends and important changes in the industry landscape before others, adaptability and an independent mindset.

AEM: When it comes to skill building, young people often don’t know where to begin. Why do you feel it’s so important for employees to learn other disciplines?

Townsend: By learning another discipline, young people gain breadth and depth of knowledge. I always encourage students and young people to choose a discipline that intrigues them – but if they don’t know where to start, I suggest learning more about finance. A good number of CEOs that I have gotten to know over the years chose finance as the other discipline that interested them early in their career, and it was something they really dug into. In the business world, everything comes down to dollars eventually. These executives credit their experience in learning finance as pivotal to putting them on the track to be a CEO or general manager. Every organization is impacted by finance in one way or another, its universal.

AEM: There has been a shift in the workplace, and employers are recognizing the importance of independent thinkers. Can you speak on why these individuals are important, and what they contribute to an organization?

Townsend: Independent minded people are not just contrarians, and they’re not people that are breaking the rules or being oppositional. They can be great team players, and great collaborators. They are the people who ask the questions like ‘what is the competition likely to do?’, or bring up the issue of something that is going on in the industry and how that fits in to the bigger picture. They’re the people who bring in information about what other companies are doing. It may be a direct competitor or someone else in the industry. It involves bringing that broader perspective to the table. Of course, everyone has work to do, and just checking off your to-do list can be pretty exhausting, but the independent thinkers go the extra mile and ask themselves and the team ‘what if we looked at it from a different perspective?’.

Furthermore, independently minded people, in my opinion, are more willing to accept organizational change and are more likely to lead the charge for change themselves. The vast majority of employees are capable of saying the correct things about change, but when it comes to actually changing, they may lag a bit to see if someone will pressure them to actually do it. The independent minded employees are more able to embrace change and to explain to the rest of the organization how it might be beneficial to embrace new practices and ways of thinking.

AEM: What is one final piece of advice that you would impart to young people that aspire to reach top management?

Townsend: For those that already are in their position, make a concerted effort to get promoted where you start. I would say that the vast majority of the people that I have interviewed over the years spent at least 5 years at their first company and earned their first promotion(s) there. Most of them began to get some serious exposure to another discipline within that time frame as well. Commit to a position and put your best foot forward. I don’t encourage people to strive for top management. There are a lot of paths to success, and there are a lot of ways to be successful that don’t involve having the word ‘chief’ in your title. But if top management is your aspiration, learn as much as you can about all aspects of the industry, cultivate interpersonal skills, learn to be adaptable and raise your hand to take on tough projects.

For more perspectives from AEM members, subscribe to the AEM Industry Advisor.  

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