I’m not a fan of the term ‘high-potential’. Before you read on, take a moment to picture what the kind of person you believe to have a high potential. Was the person you imagined an overachiever? Someone who thrived in a certain university? Someone who manages to ‘have it all’?
Not to discount the person you made up – chances are you’re right, they’re immensely talented. But really, with the right support, anyone could be a high-potential employee if they are in the right place.
I think the main issue is that most people tend to associate high potentials with individuals who execute tasks well, who you can count on to exceed expectations in delivering results. They’re eager to grow and this usually means that they’re excited to pursue leadership roles. Also, people tend to assume that high potentials are mainly in business units that lead innovation and transformation. But, beyond just execution, beyond these favoured business units, there is so much more talent that is often overlooked. This is why our general definition needs to change to include a more balanced mix of individuals.
What we see as high potential needs to start including skills beyond amazing job performance. I’m not one for football but will use this example from Barcelona FC to show why a group of highly skilled individuals simply isn’t enough. Barcelona FC once thought that hiring the best players in the world would mean that they had the best team in the world. They paid a fortune to gather them and train them only to have them lose every single match during the season.
What went wrong? For one, simply putting a group of excellent individuals together isn’t enough. You also need to build harmony, if it isn’t already there, and for the group to see that success is a collective effort.
With this in mind, selecting high potentials purely based on their skills can often end in disaster. In addition to technical expertise, these individuals will also need to have emotional intelligence, be trustworthy, be a good fit with your company’s culture, and more. The definition of who a high potential is can, and should, change with what your team, your company needs.
Also, I believe that high-potential employees are people who have found roles that let them play to their strengths. The same person could be a terrible performer in one role and a high performer in another. Instead of working to identify your high potentials, perhaps your role as a manager is to learn your colleagues’ strengths and match them with responsibilities that give them a chance to excel. If your company allows, adapt existing roles. Your company benefits from their collective strengths, and you get a larger, more balanced mix.
In identifying who a high potential might be, it’s key to at least acknowledge your inherent biases that would colour who you select. I still hear plenty of ‘old-school’ thinking. People say things as if they were facts. Things like: ‘men can work later than women’, ‘Japanese are hardworking; Australians and New Zealanders are lazy’, ‘a woman will be good for this – they tend to be more creative’, ‘this person went to my university, he should be good’.
Having worked in Europe, US, and Asia and having met people from different backgrounds, I’ve found these stereotypes to be untrue. Yet, these worldviews continue to impact where and how managers look out for high potentials. Recognising this is a first step, but more needs to be done.
As a manager, you need to create systems that hold you and your teammates accountable for your decisions. Use checklists to help you make decisions based on data, minimise how much you’re influenced by your personal views. In making a decision, you need to have sound answers to questions like: Why are you hiring in this country? Why did you choose this candidate over another? Have you looked beyond your own network? It takes more time, but in return you get more opportunities to work with better talent.
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Head of Sales, Customers Digital Transformation | Former VP Sales Operations Digital Transformation