Crowdsource Your Next Boss?

New research shows that those employees who collaborate and communicate the most have leadership potential.

learn more about David Niu

By David Niu • Jan 1, 2017 Originally published Jan 1, 2017

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Selecting the right person for a leadership position is no small task. According to a Gallup poll, organizations fail to pick the right candidate for a management position 82 percent of the time. Think about that: Statistically, only one out of every five managers are cut out for the job. This has a major impact on culture, with managers accounting for 70 percent of variance in employee engagement.

Related: 22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader

Research demonstrates that relationships among colleagues play a significant role in shaping organizational culture. Peers are the number one factor for workplace satisfaction and often determine whether companies retain employees. And that doesn't seem to jive with the traditional style of talent management: the top-down hierarchy.

In fact, workplaces are becoming more collaborative -- 88 percent of millennials express a preference for a collaborative workforce, according to Intelligence Group. So, to foster a more collaborative, less-hierarchical workplace at your organization, here's an idea: Why not use crowdsourcing to evaluate talent?

This is how my own company, TINYpulse, came to team up with Chantrelle Nielsen, Si Meng and the rest of the research team from Microsoft Analytics, to investigate whether influential employees are more likely to possess leadership potential.

To do this, we aggregated our numbers from a tool called Cheers for Peers. This peer-to-peer recognition program allows anyone in the organization -- employees and executives -- to publicly praise one other for doing good work.

We tracked how many "cheers" our employees sent and received over a six-month period. Then, Microsoft analyzed that data's relationship to network centrality. This analysis measured "influence" based on the number of connections an individual had and the number of connections his or her connections had.

What the research uncovered

We suspected that workers with a greater number of connections -- or more influence -- would be more likely to be identified as potential leaders. We also predicted that employees who received more "cheers" would have greater network influence.

Our research, published in the Harvard Business Review, supported both claims. The number of cheers an employee received was highly correlated with high network influence. "The group of people who received the most praise from colleagues acted as communication hubs for the entire organization and were central to work getting done."

Related: 5 Unforgettable Leadership Qualities for Successful Entrepreneurs

We also found that employees with a greater number of aggregate internal interactions were more likely to receive cheers. This didn't come as a surprise. Employees who collaborate more with their colleagues are then recognized for their work.

To explore the relationship between network influence and leadership potential, we analyzed the behaviors of our go-to-market segment: employees in sales and marketing. We discovered two major differences between high- and low-performing employees. First, high performers spent almost four more hours each week collaborating internally instead of externally. This group also had larger internal networks, with an average of 27 connections, compared to low performers, whose average network size was 20.

The future of leadership

Take a look around your workplace. Who's getting the job done? We bet it's those people who take action, initiate collaboration and communicate well with their colleagues. It's these kinds of people who are receiving cheers and who could be future leaders at your organization. This supports existing research. The McKinsey Global Institute found that productivity increases up to 25 percent when employees are connected with one other.

This crowd-sourced approach to identifying talent reflects today's flatter, teamwork-oriented organizations. Employees are happier and more productive when organizations incorporate their feedback into operations. Wouldn't you want to work for people who have already established themselves as office leaders in communication?

Related: 7 Leadership Qualities of All Great Leaders

This study represents a first step toward evaluating the hidden skills that high-caliber employees possess. The combination of peer-to-peer recognition and objective measures is a powerful tool for future evaluation of leadership potential. We may not have found that Holy Grail of identifying talent everyone is searching for, but we think our research is a promising signal to help accelerate you down that path.

David Niu

CEO of TINYpulse

David Niu is a Seattle-based serial entrepreneur and founder of TINYpulse. Previously, he was co-founder of BuddyTV and NetConversions. He is the author of "Careercation: Trading Briefcase For Suitcase to Find Entrepreneurial Happiness."

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