Leadership Development and the Horse Race
If you have ever been in a board meeting, you have probably heard the term “horse race.” It’s a term that’s commonly used by executives to describe a succession process. In essence, it involves two or three senior executives facing each other for the top job.
This process is a great way for an organization to identify the best leader among its employees. However, some executives are uncomfortable with the horse race approach. They fear that the protracted succession will detract from the momentum of the business. There are many directors who are sensitive to this issue, however, and take steps to mitigate the disruptive effects of a horse race.
The horse race is an excellent metaphor for leadership development. Typically, the future stars of a company are spotted early and groomed in critical roles. These leaders eventually attain the competencies required for the top position. For example, in the case of General Electric, a series of exceptional leaders was produced by their horse race strategy.
The image of the horse race has been around for a long time. It dates back to ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Syria. The first recorded race took place in France in 1651, resulting in a wager between two noblemen.
In the American colonies, organized racing began with the British occupation of New Amsterdam in 1664. In the mid-19th century, Col. Richard Nicolls laid out a 2-mile course on the plains of Long Island. He offered a silver cup to the best horses in the event. Those who wanted to withdraw from the race forfeited half the purse.
Today, the Triple Crown of elite races includes the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes, and the Preakness. Other prominent races include the Australian Caulfield Cup, the Arima Memorial in Japan, and the Gran Premio Internacional Carlos Pellegrini in Argentina.
While the horse race is not a new concept, its prominence in the political press is. In fact, the Boston Journal used the image of the horse race in its election coverage as early as 1888. And it’s becoming more prominent in other western democracies.
Some of the most influential companies in the world have used the horse race to select their next leader. Such firms are committed to the process of developing high-performing individuals. Their success in that regard is often tied to their ability to maintain an atmosphere of competition for the top job.
Companies that have implemented an overt competition for the top position have also created a culture of leadership development. By choosing a winner, the company signals its employees that they are accountable for their own performance. Furthermore, the board’s faith in management is reflected in the number of internal candidates who are considered for the role. As such, it’s important for the board to consider the organizational structure and the capabilities of the candidates.
Although the horse race has a complicated history, its roots go far back. Even the early Greeks and Romans engaged in the sport.