HBR - Are you High Potential

From the June 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review comes this article, Are You a High Potential? This is a very useful and informative article, not to mention well-written and well-argued. It does leave out, by choice perhaps, given the constraints of space, several important issues germane to such a discussion on high-potential employees, but that is not to detract from the article to begin with. The article offers a brief introduction into "high-potential" employees, what it takes to get on the list, how to stay on, and the pitfalls there in. Interspersed into this discussion are a few vignettes of people who got on to the list, who could not make it to the list, who got on and then off the list.

Lists exist.
A broad definition of a high-potential employee seems to exist at most companies.
...to become a high-potential employee, you need to "Deliver strong results - credibly", "Master new types of expertise", and "Recognize that behavior counts"
Do companies have any kind of formal process for evaluating high performers to determine whether they should be on the "high-potential" list? Is this list compiled as a collaborative process? In consultation with other senior management staff? If a list exists, but is formulated in relative secrecy, then the list is open to the accusation that it is more a compilation of an executive's "favorites" than an accurate compilation of a company's best high-potential performers. A large company typically has several groups that function in relative isolation from each other. Do the executives from one group know about the high-potentials from other groups? Do they need to know? Should they?
Our research makes clear that high potential talent lists exist, whether or not companies acknowledge them and whether the process for developing them is formal or informal.

Early in your career, getting noticed is all about mastering the technical expertise that the job requires. As you progress, you need to broaden that expertise. You start by managing an employee or a small group, and then move on to larger teams and positions (for instance, at corporate headquarters) that require you to exercise influence despite having limited formal authority.

And very importantly,
At a certain point, you will face the challenge of letting go as much as the challenge of adding on.
Haven't we all met or known several people who could not let go, so to say, of their technical expertise? Often it is because of a fear of the unknown. Management and soft-skills, that are required to succeed beyond a certain point in companies, are the unknown, and there is a suspicion of the value of these skills. Employees often see soft-skills as no-skills. Or they interact with a manager, early on in their careers, who embodies the worst of management, and generalize their assessment of that one manager to paint all of management with that one brush. There are a few, very few, who are able to walk that fine line between technical detail oriented-ness and general management skills. The danger is that young employees look at these people, and think that that is the only model to adopt. Forgetting that these role models are exceedingly difficult to emulate. Having impossibly high goals may make you work that much harder, and may also work that much more to motivate you, but you also risk a high chance of failure, and the resulting loss of motivation.
Outstanding skills never really diminish in importance, but they become a given as you are expected to excel in roles with broader reach. Prospective candidates for that coveted high-potential label must demonstrate a behavioral shift from “fit and affiliation” to “role model and teacher.”
What if everything you can do is not everything you need to do? What if after doing everything, and everything right, you still do not seem to fall into that much-aspired high-potential category? Seek the X-factors out.
  • A drive to excel
  • A catalytic learning capability.
    They have the capacity to scan for new ideas, the cognitive capability to absorb them, and the common sense to translate that new learning into productive action for their customers and their organizations."
  • An enterprising spirit
  • Dynamic sensors
And finally, everything is transient.
For starters, there’s no tenure. People can—and do—fall off the list...
Among the reasons for losing a spot on the high potential list are making a poor transition into a new role, diminished performance two years in a row, behavior that’s out of line with the company’s culture and values, and a significant visible failure.



© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.