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Managing Director

Colin Mercer

Colin Mercer



Cheshire Office
Tel: +44 1625 508100


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Thought Leadership


Some Honest Answers

Managing Director and Business Psychologist Colin Mercer was recently the guest speaker at a function for private and public sector CEOs. He was asked by the event organisers to give frank, forthright answers to questions from the floor. Extracts from his responses are reproduced below.

What do you look for in a leader?

“Brains are the most important element – the ability to analyse complex information and make sound judgements. Second is hard work – the best leaders put more effort in. Third is emotional resilience – the ability to remain emotionally stable and balanced amid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. After those three dimensions, interpersonal warmth and openness to new ideas are the next best predictors of executive success.”

Does it vary according to context?

“Yes. In big corporates the CEO needs to manage across scale, and leverage his/her influence through teams of others. In SMEs or PE-backed businesses it is much more about being a jack of all trades and moving at pace. In the public sector process-adherence, inclusion and stakeholder management are more important. But you still need brains, hard work and emotional stability whatever the context”.

How much better is a star than an average performer?

“A star is worth 9 or 10 average performers. If your goal is social justice then spread employment, rewards and attention around. If your goal is optimum performance, then concentrate on recruiting and retaining the very best people. Gear your opportunities, development and remuneration towards them. You don’t want every employee to be a star performer as conflict can arise, but better too many than too few”.

How would you allocate scarce HR resources between selection and development?

“70% to selection and assessment, 30% to learning and development. Getting the right people on the bus is the most important factor.”

How do you ensure future leaders realize their potential?

“The evidence increasingly supports the concept of deliberate practice, which has 5 steps. 1) Exposure to excellence – allow them to work with and observe talented leaders. 2) Encourage them to isolate the key components of the excellence they are seeing. 3) Give future-leaders opportunities to repeatedly practice these different components, followed by timely, honest feedback. 4) Continual stretch – keep raising the bar, keep giving them a coat one size too big. 5) Give your high potentials time to reflect upon their experiences and assimilate what they have learnt. More generally, in the area of employee development it is particularly important to avoid professional fads – there is no silver bullet, no Great Dark Man.”

If you could only do one thing to improve team performance, what would it be?

“I would ensure everyone understood the goals of the team, and reviewed these regularly, for example, every 6 months. The next most important thing is role-clarity – does everyone understand what each of them is there to do?”

Explode some management myths for us.

“The idea that a successful executive career can proceed hand-in-hand with reasonable work-life balance is something I have rarely seen in practice. Also flawed is the notion that cream always rises to the top in organizations. Having the right skills mix is essential but you also need luck, particularly in relation to timing. Finally, some commentators hold the view that the best leaders are very teamy – very consultative. In fact, we have seen many leaders fail by being too inclusive. Their strategy becomes a mushy amalgam of everyone’s ideas, ultimately indistinct and bland. The best leaders do some consulting, and they do some market research, but they also back their own instincts and beliefs – they pick one line and pursue it.”

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