How do you pick out the staff who have the potential to become executives? You could follow Amlin’s example and call in the psychologists. Lauren MacGillivray reports

EVER WONDERED what goes on inside the minds of the best leaders – and whether you could measure up? If you’re stuck in middle management, a psychologist can help you find out if you are executive material.

London-based Kiddy & Partners, which describes itself as a specialist in “assessment and talent management”, uses business psychologists to identify which employees have the right stuff.

The firm has worked with businesses such as Goldman Sachs, Sony and Rolls-Royce. But some of its most challenging clients have been insurance companies because of the technical demands of the industry. A candidate might excel at underwriting, for example, but might not have developed the right people skills to lead others.

Fear not, says Mike Owtram, a partner at Kiddy. Once underlying talent has been identified, it’s just a matter of developing it.

“Insurance is a very traditional industry – or certainly it has been,” says Owtram. “We find you can get quite a long way in the organisation without really having your management skills tested. Particularly if you work at Lloyd’s, the organisation is only a few hundred people. This isn’t the case if you work in retail, for example, where you have larger teams.”

A day as a top boss

One of Kiddy’s insurance clients is Amlin. The FTSE100 underwriter launched Compass, a leadership and talent development programme, in 2007 to improve its succession plan.

To kick off the initiative, Amlin hired Kiddy & Partners for a “diagnostic phase” that involved testing 40 key employees who bosses believed had the potential to reach executive or board level.

Kiddy ran a 24-hour assessment over two days, part of which was a simulation of a day as a high-level manager. To ensure a level playing field, the simulations were run off site and outside the insurance industry.

The participants were given an information pack that included management accounts, strategy papers, organisation charts, performance appraisals and urgent emails. They had to work through the pack and identify the issues facing the business, then come up with recommendations.

Next, Kiddy’s psychologists presented them with a problem.

A psychologist might pretend to be an unhappy client, or a sales manager who is great at sales but bad at managing.

“We’re looking for someone who can deal with the issues, but also coach and motivate the person to solve the issues rather than ripping them to shreds,” says Owtram. “Some try to be very positive and get the person to think for themselves and deal with the problems, while others skirt around the problem.

“We vary our style, probing and testing how good the individual is in handling each aspect of the management challenge.”

Managers need to build good rapport with their employees. When starting a meeting, says Owtram, introduce yourself and find out a little about the other person. Then, ask if he or she has any points to raise. This will allow you to work with each other and tackle the issues to achieve clear outcomes.

Whatever you do, don’t get in a heated argument with a staff member or client – something Owtram has seen participants do.

He adds that besides keeping your cool, the best leadership qualities include ambition – and the ability to delegate.

“It’s important that individuals recognise they need to delegate and don’t try to do something themselves,” says Owtram. “People who are achievement-motivated can do very well at the early stages of their careers because they get things done and like doing things. But as they get into more senior positions, there are more and more people to do things for them.

“We also look for the desire to make a difference. You’re looking for people who really want to have an impact and have the drive, particularly at the senior level of organisations.”

Mark Farrow, human resources director at Amlin, says Kiddy added “enormous value”.

“One of the advantages is that, not only can you calibrate the skills, competencies and potential of all your people against each other, but you can then measure them against benchmarks in other sectors, such as retail or manufacturing,” he says.

“It is possible to attain senior positions in the Lloyd’s market because of technical excellence, but many of these individuals have had less opportunity to develop their leadership skills.”

Overall, most of the staff who took part found the process worthwhile. Each was able to comment on their report and this provided a basis for their individual development plans.

The work has helped with senior appointments. The 40 participants in the Compass programme are now two or three levels below board level, says Farrow. “We’re aiming to identify potential, which is difficult because, in their normal job, they don’t get much opportunity to display anything other than technical skills. Kiddy’s business simulation enabled us to see how they would perform in a different environment.” IT