Are Spiky Leaders better than Rounded Leaders?


In 2012 I participated in a workshop organised by Egon Zehnder and McKinsey in Amsterdam. They presented the results of a study they conducted in 2011 (see the reference below). This was the first time (shame on me) that I heard the term “Spiky Leadership”.

Successful leaders have one or two spikes

The study showed that companies are better off selecting leaders with real spikes in one or two competency areas. The figure below (out of the report)

shows the competency areas where it makes most difference if you have leaders with spikes in these areas are: Customer impact (“continually takes action to add value to the customer”), Market Insight  (“the ability to look beyond the company’s current context to discern future growth opportunities”) and Results Orientation (“Drives uncompromisingly for higher performance”).

Many of our current HR practices are still rooted in the days when management was invented. As I outlined last time (“The future of HR, part 1: is HR reinforcing the status quo?“) the dominant image of organisations is still the organisation as a machine.

Most competency frameworks are anti-spike

Competency models, which became fashionable in the last decade of the 20th century, pushed by consultancies who have earned a lot of money designing the frameworks, have had a very negative effect. The key message of the competency frameworks is always: these are the competencies you need to be successful in these kind of jobs, and you better start working on your deficiencies of you want to move ahead.

Most companies have their leadership model, and they all come from the same mould. Leaders have to be client focused, people focused, results oriented, excellent team players, talent champions and kings of operational excellence.
The performance management process is fuelled by the competency framework. Most performance conversations, if they take place at all, focus on the developmental areas. The performance appraisal forms, often little masterpieces of the HR department designed by one of the HR task forces, also push the conversations in this direction.Not: how can can we build on your strengths, but: how can we develop your areas of attention.

Are rounded leaders average leaders?

Career planning same story. The focus is on developing rounded leaders, with broad experience, in different functional and geographical areas of the organisation. Mary has shown that she can excel in sales, but she clearly lacks operational experience. When you look at your organisation as an army, the number of people that are reporting to you are a very important indicator of your success.

When you believe that building on spikes is the future, the HR practices will have to change. Away with the competency frameworks. Focus on detecting the spikes of people early in their career, and then build on those spikes. Spikes do not grow naturally. Experience and training to sharpen the spikes are essential.

The performance management process needs redesign, not only to focus more on the development of spikes. I will write more about this in one of the next blogs. If spikes are important for success, carefully composing teams also becomes more important. A team with all rounded leaders is less valuable than a team with people with spikes in different areas. Career development should focus on how to strengthen and deepen the spikes of the people in the program, not on broadening them as much a s possible.

HR should let go to strive for uniformity and equality. This is difficult, as these are also very much in the genes of people in HR, all over the world. Diversity is important, focus on talent with HR practices that an be tailored to the needs of different segments and individuals in the organisation.

See also:

“Competencies that generate growth – Return on leadership”. Study by Egon Zehnder & McKinsey, 2011″

Learn about the HR trends for 2022

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