The Journey Towards a More Diverse Leadership Pipeline

May 19, 2021 Suzanne Courtney

When it comes to making career-defining decisions about who to ‘promote’ into the leadership pipeline, we often hear talk of those with ‘high potential’ making the cut. There is plenty of debate about what is – and who has – potential. Surely, the majority of the workforce has the potential to reskill and upskill?

Yet many organizations are unsure about what high potential means – or what it looks like in a candidate. What is meant by those making such decisions is: who amongst the candidates will be a great leader to take the firm forward? How can firms decide who they can move to the next level?

Many organizations rely on a combination of performance data and instinct to make critical decisions about promotion and leadership. Think of the talent review meeting or the succession planning process and the evidence that has been put forward at such meetings. Such a combination is unreliable at best, and deeply biased at worst.

We see time and again that simply because many of the critical capabilities that future leaders need – ability, aspiration and agility – are viewed as ‘hard-to-capture intangibles’, it becomes so much easier to fall back on the candidate track record and the ‘gut feel’ of those making the decisions.

However, we know that past job performance is not a guarantee of future leadership capability – and there’s certainly no place for gut feeling in talent decision-making.

It is time to bring in talent assessment. It is time to bring in a research-based model of what future leaders need.

Our research¹ shows that those with high scores on leadership behaviors are:

  • 30% better at continuous improvement.
  • 25% stronger at problem-solving.
  • 15% more likely to manage their own workload and self-develop.
  • 20% higher scorers on job performance ratings.

It’s more than agility, ability and aspiration

These are the frequently-talked-about characteristics of those with the potential to become leaders of the digital future. They are personality characteristics – and are those at the highest level. However, we can break these down into further aspects of personality that enable us to more accurately determine whether a candidate has the specific personality attributes needed to be an effective leader in the more-digital environment most of us now work in.

Take aspiration, for example. This reflects aspects of personality, such as an individual’s desire to achieve, their focus on career progression and their willingness and confidence to lead others. When looking at the possible future leaders in front of us, we need to dig deeper and better understand how their aspiration has been constructed.

This is where personality questionnaires can help us to go deeper and remove the bias of gut instinct or unsubstantiated comments such as “she’s the one!”.

Supporting your journey to diversity

Using robust personality questionnaires and other talent assessments removes the pitfalls of human bias that can creep into leadership pipelines. It means that a leadership pipeline will fill up with the capabilities and the diversity of great future leaders. Their place has been assured because of their measurable talent – rather than somebody else’s hunch.

The business case for greater diversity and inclusivity grows more compelling each year. We know that diversity leads to new ideas and fresh perspectives which boost creativity and also that inclusion at work enhances workforce productivity and well-being. However, diversity is not the only factor for enhancing inclusion within your organization’s culture. Inclusive leaders – those who are collaborative, flexible, understanding and humble – are the key to maximizing the benefits of a diverse workforce by facilitating an inclusive culture. Research² has shown that inclusive leaders are more likely to improve employee productivity, collaboration and engagement, as well as increase innovation, motivation and retention.

Contact us if you would like to learn more about how to redesign your assessment processes to ensure fairness and engagement and encourage a more diverse cohort.


1: Aon research, 2019

2: CLC Human Resources (2012). Global Labor Market Survey. Arlington, VA; Deloitte (2013). Waiter, s That Inclusion in my Soup? Deloitte. Sydney, Australia; Garr, S., & Atamanik, C. (2017). High-Impact Diversity and Inclusion: The Maturity Model. Deloitte Development, Stamford, CT.; Hollander, E. (2012). Inclusive Leadership: The Essential Leader-Follower Relationship. Routledge. New York, NY.; Hunt, V., Layton, D., & Prince, S. (2015). Diversity Matters. McKinsey & Company. New York, NY.; Prime, J., & Salib, E. (2014). Inclusive Leadership: The View from Six Countries. Catalyst. New York, NY.; Shapiro, G., Wells, H., & Saunders, R. (2011). Inclusive Leadership: From Pioneer to Mainstream. Business in the Community. London, UK.; Riordan, C. (2014). Diversity is Useless Without Inclusivity. Harvard Business Review.; Wuffli, P. (2016). Inclusive Leadership: A Framework for the Global Era. Springer International. Zurich, Switzerland.

About the Author

Suzanne Courtney

Suzanne Courtney is the UK Managing Director for Aon's Assessment Solutions and is a recognized occupational psychology consultant with extensive expertise in assessment, leadership development, people strategies and employee engagement. She is responsible for the company’s performance and growth in the UK market. Aon's Assessment Solutions undertake 30 million assessments each year in 90 countries and 40 languages.

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