How Science Is Powering Leadership Assessment


In AESC's podcast, Leaders on Leaders, Karen Greenbaum talks with Clarke Murphy, CEO of Russell Reynolds Associates.

KAREN: Welcome to the Leaders on Leaders series from the global Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants. I’m Karen Greenbaum, AESC President and CEO. In Leaders on Leaders, we explore today’s top trends impacting global leadership with leaders from the world’s top executive search and leadership advisory firms. 

Today, we’ll be discussing leadership assessment. I’m joined by CEO of Russell Reynolds Associates, Clarke Murphy. Clarke, thanks for joining us.

CLARKE: I appreciate it, Karen. Thanks very much. 

KAREN: So, Clarke, first, let me thank you and Russell Reynolds Associates for being a founding member of AESC over 50 years ago. Why don’t you begin by telling us a bit about Russell Reynolds Associates? 

CLARKE: Oh, I’d love to. Ironically, I had been there with Russ last week who – when I told him about the podcast about how the world had come along and also starting this from the beginning to make sure that our industry was well-represented in terms of the quality of what we do and the standards. So, it’s ironic how the world goes around. 

Russell Reynolds Associates is a privately held partnership. We are focused on leadership advisory, probably perhaps more narrowly defined than some of our competitors, but in essence, board advice, CEO advice, and executive search advice. We are owned by our 170 partners in 27 countries. We’re in 47 cities, in the major cities of the world you would expect. The only place that we’re not physically represented is Africa but we do a lot of work there already. We have been focused on search assessment, board effectiveness, board succession, CEO succession. And we’re active in foundations, universities and colleges, some governments, and a great deal in the performing arts world as well. So, broader than just the corporate executive search probably that people think of our industry. 

KAREN: Thanks for the overview. That was really helpful. You’ve recently announced Leadership Span, your new approach to assessment and it’s indicated that it is a game-changer. So what makes your approach to assessment so unique?

CLARKE: Because it’s forward-looking not backward-looking. What does that mean? That we think that the Leadership Span framework helps give a greater sense of predictability to C-suite executives or CEO succession candidates than a reflection on past performance. So, what does that mean? 

One of the realizations I had doing a lot of CEO succession work after the financial crisis and then as transformation, as digital impact, so many different industries go through so much change. [There are] lots of boards and chief executives [that] were continually surprised that the person they knew well and had groomed, she or he didn’t turn out to perform as well in a rapidly changing world as they expected and change has been here forever.  It’s just the pace of change has accelerated.

So the world today, you may need to be disruptive or understand disruption or accept it or implement it, but there are also moments when you have to be incredibly pragmatic, practical to make operating decisions or painful ones now. It’s not are you disruptive or are you practical, it’s how wide is the span between the two. So Leadership Span is looking at opposing four pairs of opposing competencies and the better you span them—we believe and are supported by science and by the PhD studies at Hogan—has a greater sense of predictability of future success. And clients are incredibly excited that they have more science as well as our opinion around future success.

KAREN: That’s terrific and actually that answered one of the questions I was thinking about which is this whole issue of dichotomous trades working together to predict leadership success. I think you’ve really summarized that well and it’s very intriguing and I love the combination of both art and science. That really is what our business is about.

You’re also doing work in the area of culture, defining both current and desired culture, and helping companies truly transform their culture for ultimate results. We’ve been hearing a lot more about culture analysis. Why is this such an important focus?

CLARKE: Well, you’ve probably heard me say before that we interview and select for competency, we hire for competency, but you fire because of culture fit. And I think that the third leg of the stool in terms of art and science is culture—it doesn’t surprise anyone who would listen to this. But [it’s] the ability to understand where the culture is today, the reality of where it is and not where you or a leadership team might think it is and the culture that you aspire to. You’re either taking your team on a journey or perhaps you need to infuse the culture with new people that get you to the desired culture.

I think it’s a huge opportunity and one that is misunderstood—you could waste or have a lot of bad selection, number one. Number two, related to that is inclusion. I think a lot of us have done work, whether it’s Japan or Germany or America, about diversity. And diversity means different things to different people – diversity of thought, diversity of experience and not just gender or racial diversity. But diversity doesn’t matter if there’s no inclusion or no feeling of inclusion. And so a large part about culture is not just the corporate goals, but do you have followership? Do you have a group of people that feel included in where you want to go? A large part of our work around culture is this latter part about inclusion and communication and making sure there’s followership to make it to the desired culture or continuing an existing culture. It could be any number of situations. 

KAREN: So that’s really interesting and I think a lot of times when people think of Russell Reynolds, they think about executive selection, this aspect of the business. How do you apply Leadership Span and culture analysis to the organization beyond executive selection?

CLARKE: Right. So, remember that if you do 4,000 searches a year, the great insight you have [and] the knowledge you have is through executive search. Let’s not kid ourselves: that’s who we are, it’s who we want to be, [and] it’s who we’ll stay. But the insights you generate from that and/or the data that now we collect is so much more—from the last 11 or 12 years from our assessment work and the psychological testing work we’ve done—you have tremendous amounts of data that you can start to see pattern recognition. You can start to see trends of success or lack of success versus corporate performance.

So, what we’re just doing is applying a lot of what we’ve learned or can test for today, particularly around culture, to de-risk and to lower the risk of either promotion [and] that we’re helping them promote internally. You wouldn’t believe the amount of business we’re doing with clients [who are] only considering their internal candidates through benchmarking, through succession work, through psychometric testing. [And] that is helping them choose the right team or the right people for the future and they may never go outside. [There are] lots of clients [and] no one ever knows we were there because they want to keep it confidential. So it’s taking the learnings from the search business of many decades and the data we have built, and Hogan has built when it relates to Leadership Span, and applying that to the other things we’re doing.

So we love and we’re in the core business of what we’re in. We’re just taking much of the insight from that and helping clients in different ways.

KAREN: So you’re broadening the work that you’re doing and leveraging it, which is terrific.

CLARKE: Exactly.

KAREN: Clarke, thank you for your insights, and for listeners, thank you for joining us for Leaders on Leaders. For our next Leaders on Leaders discussion, stay tuned to Thank you and have a great day.

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