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Are Boomerangs Your Best Leadership Strategy?

To develop future leaders, the best approach may be to toss them away and catch them when they return.

In an interview in 2009, when he became the CEO at Shell, Voser said, “I left Shell for a short period to go to work for ABB. The main driver for me was to be CFO of a quoted company. I wanted that experience. I was ready and impatient with myself, and I couldn’t see that happening fast enough at Shell. … [At ABB] it was about survival, and we restructured the company, while sustaining sharp operational performance. Had we not done that, we would have gone under. I learned that it’s better to drive change yourself first than to be forced by external events to do it. So my time at ABB was truly a formative experience.”

The article pointed out that Voser’s ascension to the CEO role, after he returned to Royal Dutch Shell, was notable for a “blunt” memo describing the need to change a culture that was “too consensus oriented,” to create a stronger performance culture. Voser was qualified to make such observations, given his credibility as an insider with 25 years’ experience at Shell, but perhaps his most unique qualification was the formative experience at ABB. Had he not tossed himself away from Shell, returning at just the right place, he would have been less qualified for the CEO role.

Talent management and leadership efforts still operate on traditional employment assumptions such as:

• The objective is to get people to join and stay.

• Hiring executives from outside is a last resort when we fail to develop talent internally.

• We should minimize turnover among the highest-potential employees.

• We should discourage employees from close relationships with competitors, for fear of losing them, their intellectual property or both.

These assumptions can set you up for failure to capitalize on opportunities like those of Elop and Voser, much like holding tightly to a boomerang as if it were a club.

Those two cases were most likely not planned aspects of the organizations’ leadership strategies, but in the future, winning organizations may want to create such opportunities. Marketing and production “systems” already break down organizational boundaries, work with organizations that are simultaneously competitors and collaborators, and deconstruct and distribute processes that were formerly done in-house. In the same way, your future talent management and leadership development “systems” will increasingly be disintermediated, boundaryless and permeable in defining competitor-collaborator relationships.

The author thanks Ravin Jesuthasan and David Creelman for assistance with this article.

John Boudreau is professor and research director at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations, and author of Retooling HR: Using Proven Business Tools to Make Better Decisions About Talent. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.

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