When two heads are better than one - complementary leadership matters for succession planning, says Gartner

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne February 3, 2020
Leadership confidence is low, so it's time for some complementary thinking around HR.

gartner numbers

It’s high time for a succession planning reboot if organizations want to equip their leaders with the skills and confidence they need to succeed in the changing workplace. That's according to Sari Wilde, Managing Vice-President of HR insights at Gartner, who tells me:

What we’ve heard from our clients many times is, ‘what got us here, won’t get us there’. It requires something that’s different for individuals in these leadership roles and that’s really challenging for organizations and leaders.

Many leaders feel out of their depth, with roughly half of the 2,800 leaders surveyed in a recent Gartner report, ”Five Succession Risks That Can Derail Your Leadership Strategy”, admitting they don’t feel well-equipped to lead their organizations in the future.

Disruption, such as digitization and the greater public scrutiny leaders face through social media, is affecting how leaders operate. Another pressure on leaders, says Wilde, is the disconnect between leaders and the people they manage:

In a lot of situations, the jobs that leaders’ employees are doing today look very different from when they had those jobs themselves. Work is more interdependent than ever before; leaders are needing to understand all the different kinds of relationships that are going on in organizations.

While HR practitioners can’t change the macro pressures on their leaders, they can mitigate some of their impact and help managers perform better. But with only 15% of executives in the report rating their HR team as effective in developing the leaders of the future, HR needs to reassess its approach to leadership development. 


One innovative way to support leaders is through what Gartner calls complementary leadership, where two or more leaders with different skills join together to share leadership responsibility. Wilde explains:

Complementary leadership is essentially where you put two leaders who have complementary skills-sets and the idea is that together they have the complete skill-set required for the role.

She cites an anonymized Australian Gartner client is already using this approach to great effect:

This company was going into a completely new business line. They had a leader in place with all the right soft skills and industry and organizational knowledge, but they were missing a couple of key skills they needed to push the new business forward. So, they paired this leader with another leader in the organization who had some of the right skills and knowledge.

HR created a formalized structure in place with ground rules and expectations for the co-leaders clearly defined. The results were so successful that co-leader idea was replicated in other parts of the business.

This success is not a one-off. Gartner analysis reveals that companies using this buddy approach saw a 60% increase in team performance and a 40% boost to leaders’ own performance. Wilde adds:

There’s just been this misconception that leaders have to have all the skills and have to be all-knowing and be able to do everything. In the world we’re living in today, that’s just not realistic.

Of course, learning skills from their leadership partner is also a great way for HR to develop and train its leaders.

This idea of complementary leadership is linked to the rise of what Wilde dubs the “Connector Manager”, which starts from the premise that managers don’t have all the answers to every problem or scenario.

Instead, on some occasions, connector managers will link employees with others who may be better suited to provide coaching or development. Such managers create a trusting and transparent work environment that promotes peer-to-peer, as well as top-down, coaching and feedback.

Another clear way HR can improve their succession pipeline is through diversity and inclusion. Some 88% of diversity and inclusion leaders in the report identified promotions and/or succession as one of the talent processes most susceptible to bias, according to Gartner. Clearly, more needs to be done, notes Wilde:

In many companies it’s so manager led, totally based on the opinion of the manager and we found in many cases that managers tend to pick people who look like them and behave like them.

Data analytics can help companies tackle unconscious or conscious bias, but it also needs human intervention. Some organizations, notes Wilde, are bringing in outside diversity and exclusion experts into the recruiting process to spot leaders who are being too led by subjectivity or unconscious bias in their recruitment decisions.

HR also needs to widen its potential leadership pool by changing leadership initiatives primarily on high-potential employees - the so-called HiPos, says Wilde:

I think that’s one of the mistakes that a lot of organizations make - they have the same people in the same boxes across the succession plan. Those leaders may have been there for a long time but that doesn’t mean they’re the right ones to lead the organization in the future.

One long-standing Gartner customer scrapped just such  plan because it recognized it wasn’t delivering the promised results. On a practical level, many of that elite group either left the organization, changed career plans or had skills that were no longer in demand. More importantly, having an elite group didn’t fit in with the egalitarian culture the company was striving to create, says Wilde:

They completely eradicated the idea of high-potential talent and replaced it with much better manager training, so that every manager would be having really strong talent and career conversations with their employees - the kind of conversations you would provide to high potentials.

The Gartner report found that typically organizations had lived through five enterprise-wide changes in the last three years, and 73% expected that more were on the way. Keeping the leadership pipeline working efficiently is key to keeping on top of the changes. It’s HR’s job to “provide leaders with the right kind of support as their roles are changing,” according to Wilde.

My take

My sense is that confidence among leaders appears to be low and that calls for action. The idea of complementary leadership makes a lot of sense and is just one facet of the way our workplaces are becoming increasingly collaborative.

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