If a hiring team intentionally recruits for leadership orientation, specifically deep-diving on a candidate’s early roles, would it make different choices when selecting leaders? Would those choices increase the chances of picking winners? I was prompted to think about these questions while reading a school’s community newsletter, and it made me wonder about whether a method called Role Biography could be adapted for use in selection activities.

The PLC Leadership Journey

In July 2021 an old school published a double page infographic in its regular newsletter. It was titled ‘The PLC Leadership Journey‘. The infographic described a student’s leadership development path from early learning to senior school. Three leadership competencies were highlighted. They were helping, guiding and collaborating. The spread came to life with quotes from students, one just a toddler, all the way through to the Year 12s. Their words reflected on their experience of learning to lead.

The infographic artist had also included the school’s approach to developing leadership competencies in each child. This included:

  • A definition of leader from its (2021-dated) strategic plan.  “An articulate, capable and responsible person of integrity who works collaboratively, has a heart for service and uses her education to make the world a better place.”,
  • the school’s approach to leadership development in the Early Learning Centre and
  • its approach to leadership development in Junior School and Senior School

PLC’s approach for developing leadership is not so different to how it might occur in other types of organisations. There’s a lead self, lead others, lead organisation model in mind. The school connects the dots, and uses the kids’ quotes to demonstrate what leadership looks like at various levels of development. They are snippets of stories that show longitudinal, compound development of leadership competencies via life experience. As mentioned above, the quotes ranged from a small child talking about helping out, to older students consciously identifying their actions as acts of leadership.

Helping: ‘Sometimes I help my friends make paper fans and butterflies. I show them what to do.’ Lauren – 3 year old Kindergarten

Guiding: ‘The ups and downs of this semester have taught me that a good leaders should be flexible and lead by example. Communication and compromise are key.’ Jennifer – Year 9

Collaborating: ‘We have realised that sometimes we don’t have a pattern to follow in a position of leadership. Often, we have to make our own pattern, adapting and changing in response to new challenges. Leadership is about striving to serve the needs of our school community.’ Ruyi and Ria – year 12

This school had an impact on how I see accountability, responsibility, helping, and leadership. Each year our diaries opened with ‘Responsible behaviour is expected at all times’. The engagement style has changed, but the messages are similar, so it is no surprise that I connected with its 2021 version. I also had a valence for the expectations it placed on its students (via my parents) before I commenced there.

What has this got to do with corporate organisations and leader recruitment?

For leader selection, I think there is value in understanding early roles, even when the candidate is well-established in their career. An exploration of early roles could super-charge a hiring team’s chances of choosing a candidate who will be successful in the role. Leadership roles are high stakes. Poor selection can do widespread, lasting damage to culture and performance.

We spend a fortune on leader development

Organisations continually invest in developing and renewing leadership frameworks and capability frameworks, carefully selecting high potential, entry level people, and developing and redeveloping leaders. They also spend time cleaning up after leaders who probably should have pursued a different career path.

There are plenty of points where the effort to grow early career professionals into senior leaders can derail – for reasons within and outside an organisation’s control. There are far too many variables to list and explain in a short piece like this one. When this happens, organisations plug gaps in their mid and senior leadership pipelines by recruiting experienced hires, and they recruit them differently to the approach they take to entry level people.

We tend to ask experienced candidates about only their professional adult work experience

Once a person has moved past entry level positions (e.g. graduates), recruiters and hiring managers stop asking candidates what they did in their pre-professional roles. Candidates are encouraged to present their last ten to twelve years of experience and relate only the recent, high impact examples during a selection process. Behavioural selection guidelines privilege recency, relevance to the target job and impact when evaluating the examples that experienced candidates supply in their applications and interviews.

Could we be missing out on valuable insight about the candidate? What if the roles that the people took up as youngsters – children, teenagers and young adults – remain a strong indication about their later role choices, and a downpayment on their chance of success in those later roles?

Preferences developed in early roles inform later role choices

There is a school of thought that suggests role preferences are developed via the early roles a person takes up in their life. Also, that past performance and preference informs future performance and preference (comparable but not the same as with behavioural selection, which trains ‘past performance predicts future performance’.)

So what?

Turning to leadership roles, if a hiring team intentionally recruits for leadership orientation, specifically evidenced by a candidate’s early roles, would it make different choices when selecting leaders? Would those choices increase the chances of picking winners? It seems to work when recruiting graduates, who come in with limited or no professional experience.

To that end, can an organisation improve the likelihood of leader success by exploring the history of roles taken up in early life by experienced candidates?

To get a bit more granular, early roles might give the hiring team insight into the candidate’s potential. For example, in their early roles, did they develop the basics of Leading Self? Did they go on to develop the competencies for Leading Others and Leading Organisation?

My hunch is that the same sorts of enquiry that we make of graduate applicants is also useful with experienced hires..

Role Biography

I have been involved in leader development for many decades. In that time I’ve also learned a method called Role Biography via organisation dynamics studies. The method involves the client drawing themselves ‘in role’ at different stages of your life, and then using an associative technique to make meaning from the depiction of various roles over their life to date. It’s done with a partner-consultant. In my experience it’s a great method for assisting people to generate personal insight. It can help people to develop themselves as a result.

What if we adapted role biography for selection of leaders where a leadership orientation – as well as technical leadership mastery – is desirable? I think we could do it in at least two ways. One way would be to repurpose the Role Biography method for activities like assessment centres, which would be uncommon for leader selection. So I won’t go there.

A second option would be to include a role biography activity in the selection process. A candidate could be invited to draw their role biography and then the interviewer(s) could associate to the drawing, with a closing reflection to round out the insight created via the activity. Hiring teams would discern a candidate’s inclination to lead, and how that might show up on the job.

A third option would be to draw inspiration from the method for interview formats. An interview panel could enquire about a candidate’s early roles and how those have or have not influenced later role choices. They could further explore how satisfied the candidate was with those early experiences, and use this information to assist in establishing role fit.

Exploring someone’s role biography during an interview probably shows up something like this: Tell me about the roles you had in your family, at school and in your community as you grew up.

Sample follow up questions:

  • How did that experience inform your role choices as an adult?
  • How have you drawn on that experience?
  • What did you learn about yourself? About leading others?
  • How did you feel in that role?

To close out, it was just a chance reading of PLC’s regular newsletter in 2021 that made me think about this topic. I do think we should recruit for leaders in a similar way to the way we do for early career people. We can explore a candidate’s early roles as a way of ascertaining role fit, and potential for success, and as a result, we can get better at picking winners. A job interview is not the intended use of a role biography, but there are no rules to say it can’t be adapted or used as inspiration to improve selection methods. I think there might be something in it.


PLC in Print, July 2021, Pages 6 – 7, Presbyterian Ladies College, Burwood, Melbourne, Australia.

Toward 2023 Strategy, August 2021, Presbyterian Ladies College, Burwood, Melbourne, Australia.

Development Dimensions International (DDI) – Personal copy of Targeted Selection Administrator Manual (1996)

Socioanalytic Methods: Discovering the Hidden in Organisations and Social Systems (Long, S. D., Karnac Books, 2013)

Additional Reading

https://www.guerinconsulting.com/post/what-s-your-role-biography (This is a practitioner’s website; Marisa Guerin. She has written a lovely piece on role drawings)

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