The Secret to Building Individual and Organisational Capability

The Secret to Building Individual and Organisational Capability

By John Milsom

A few years ago Wickland Westcott was asked to pitch for some work to support the identification and development of High Potential leaders within a large FMCG multinational. The brief for the tender process included a request for our perspective on the latest thinking relating to the identification and development of future talent. This prompted us to summarise our thinking in the model below. We have subsequently embedded this approach within a wide range of assignments and believe it offers something to everyone looking to develop themselves, those around them, or whole organisations.

The model itself originated from our own experiences combined with a surge in publications relating to talent management and the development of expertise. The literature suggested a convergence of thinking within Management Science, Psychology and Neuroscience which tallies with our own reflections that the development of high performers, high potentials and even those seen with ‘innate talent’ lies in the experience that these people gain through practice rather than through gifts that they are genuinely born with.

Certain attributes such as drive and intellectual ability are clearly useful in supporting learning. Coaching also accelerates the process of learning from experience. However, ultimately the most notable characteristic of those who excel within any field is that they all have extensive exposure to high quality developmental experiences at an early stage in their lives or careers. In other words they do a lot of the right kind of practice in order to establish a base of knowledge and skill that can be drawn upon and applied when needed.

Further analysis of the research literature revealed five clear factors that characterise the ‘right kind of practice’. These are:

  1. Exposure to excellence – visibility of role models who inspire and demonstrate what success looks like and show that it is possible
  2. Isolation of key components – working on specific subskills in isolation before integrating them into a whole performance
  3. Repetition – repeated exposure to groove ways of thinking and ensure perspectives become embedded
  4. Continual stretch – being continually exposed to tasks that are challenging but achievable, with the high bar continually being raised
  5. Reflection, introspection and assimilation – Support in continually reviewing experiences in order to separate key learning

We have used these insights within assignments in a variety of ways. For example, when looking to assess leaders within Search and Leadership Assessment programmes we look to profile the experience base that candidates are able to draw on as well are their current capability or track record. The key thing here is to differentiate between (as my ice hockey coach once described) those with a genuine ten years’ experience and those with one years’ experience ten times. It can also be useful to understand the points of inflection within an individual’s career where lessons started to sink in or when individuals were exposed to new experiences to learn from.

From a developmental perspective, we seek to include practice and repetition into leadership programmes through the use of Self-learning Development Centres and tailored Business Simulation Exercises. The more opportunities for practice we can build in the better, and the deeper the level of processing we can achieve the more powerful we know the learning will be. These approaches provide the opportunity for key skills and perspectives to be stretched within a controlled and supportive environment. Within Executive Coaching our coaches also consistently work towards supporting their clients to learn from the experiences and opportunities they have around them, maximising the value they get from their work.

In summary – the secret to building capability lies in providing exposure the exposure needed for knowledge to be acquired and skills to be practiced in the right way. The same applies to both individual leaders, teams and organisations. The challenge therefore lies in stretching ourselves and those around us with valuable experiences that provide opportunities for high quality practice whilst ensuring the support is available to learn from these experiences.


For more thoughts on the assessment and development of leaders please connect or follow me. Likewise if you’d like to discuss these areas please get in touch. You can find further insight related to leadership from my colleagues here or by following us on LinkedIn.


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