In most instances, predicting an executive’s success is as difficult as it is necessary. Each tool, while providing some value, ends up being imperfect:
- Business metrics from past projects or positions are the easiest to obtain, but they only give a retrospective picture — and an incomplete one at that.
- Manager evaluations can provide a broader perspective, but are prone to bias and “playing favorites.” A full 360° survey does much better, but only if there is enough data to factor out office politics.
- Formal assessments fare better as an objective measure of capabilities. But even these can be somewhat removed from the exact responsibilities of a particular role.
So what measures of executive ability best predict an executive’s success?
The nuanced answer is: a mix of all of them. The more data you can collect, the more likely you are to get the whole picture.
But the more bold (and surprising) answer is: Ask peers what they think about an executive’s performance.
We discovered this correlation when looking at data from thousands of 360° surveys conducted over a six-year period, evaluating over 1,500 executives who were being groomed for promotion. Many of these surveys were conducted for the same individual over several years, giving us a paper trail of historical performance data.
We culled the data to see which groups could best predict an executive’s success: managers; direct reports; peers; or clients and vendors. Of these groups, peers were usually the most spot-on when it came to predicting an executive’s success. They also tended to give the most candid feedback.
What Explains Peers’ Ability to Predict an Executive’s Success?
Though we didn’t study this formally, anecdotal evidence suggests that politics play a role here.
When direct reports are asked to complete a 360° survey, for example, they tend toward the extremes. Sometimes they are fearful that criticism will impact their working relationship negatively, and end up giving an overly glowing report. But if the working relationship is already poor, direct reports might be overly negative — in essence, they could use the 360° survey to vent about their supervisor.
For their part, managers might not have the best grasp of an executive’s day-to-day work habits. What they don’t know can be too easily filled in by their own biases, similar to the halo effect.
Peers, by contrast, need neither flatter nor fear the executive under examination. They also tend to be in the best place to evaluate the executive’s day-to-day performance. And even though they might still play favorites, peers are more likely to rate honestly out of a sense of professional integrity.
We concluded that 360° surveys are a good tool for assessing an executive’s performance. However, you must be careful to avoid some common pitfalls of 360 surveys. If you are looking to gauge future success in particular, pay close attention to peers’ ratings. When paired with assessment tools, multi-rater surveys can provide a more objective picture of an executive’s future performance.
Enjoy additional Hal Guterman blog posts.