Monday, November 30, 2009

High Potential Notification Guidelines: Not Too Heavy, Not Too Light

Most organizations have a process for the identification and development of "high potentials", those high flying, rock star, future leaders of the organization.

One of the most frequent questions I get when I work with a leadership team on succession planning and leadership development is around notification. "Do we tell them, and if so, how do we tell them?"

Most of the guidelines I've read on this topic are rather theoretical and dry, and not specific enough for the average manager to implement.

I thought it might be helpful to use the current Bud Light "Not Too Light, Not Too Heavy" beer commercial as a metaphor, along with handy word tracks to illustrate three common notification methods and the associated consequences of each. (That's what happens from watching too much football over the holiday break.)

These scenarios are based on my own real-world experience - having been at various times a high potential, having managed high potentials, and from managing high potential programs at different organizations. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Too Light:

Manager: "Pam, I've got a new opportunity for you. I'd like you to lead the new branding task force, in addition to your regular responsibilities. While you're at it, how about if you start having regular meetings with old Charlie, our VP of Marketing? I'll bet you two would have a lot of interesting things to talk about."

Pam: "Oh, OK, I guess so.... but why me? I've got a full plate already, and this assignment is completely outside of the scope of my job. What am I supposed to talk to Charlie about? I've never even met him?"

Manager: "Hey, don't worry about it, this is all a part of your development. By the way..... how attached are you to where you're living now? Would you consider relocating? Have you ever been to Buffalo?"

Two months later:

Manager: "What do you mean you're resigning? We have big plans for you... why, you were going to be the next VP of Marketing!"

Pam: "Well, that sure would have been nice to know. That's the position my new company has offered me. I'm leaving here because you kept throwing all these random "opportunities" at me, and then you told me I'm going to have to relocate to Buffalo!"

Too Heavy:

Manager: "Dwight, I've got great news for you. Now you have to keep this a secret, because I'm not supposed to be telling you this (wink wink). Me and the rest of the management team just did this "high potential assessment" exercise, and guess what? You're going to be the next VP of Marketing! We ranked you and all your peers on this nine box matrix, and you were the only one in the "A1" box. Yeah, that's you, Dwight old buddy, you are an A1!! Congratulations!"

Dwight: "Uh, gee, thanks. That's great, I'm honored. So what does all this mean?"

Manager: "Well, first of all, if you're going to be a VP, you need to start acting like a VP. I'm going to have you start to run some of my meetings, and working with me on the budget. Oh, I'd like to have you coach a couple of your co-workers; that would be good practice for you, and I'm sure they'll appreciate learning from the best. This is going to be great, we'll have you ready for that VP position in no time!"

Two Months later:

Manager: "Dwight, I need to talk to you about something. Your co-workers have been complaining to me about your behavior. They say you've been acting really obnoxious lately, running around like someone anointed you their boss. I have to say, you've been getting a little arrogant with me too. Oh, and old Charlie isn't feeling too well these days. I can't believe he said this, but he thinks you've been slipping something into his coffee. Is this true?"

Just Right:

Manager: "Jim, I'd like to talk to you about your career path and your development. First of all, I want you to know that I'm really impressed with your work, and I see you as having potential to grow beyond your current responsibilities. I'm not the only one who feels that way, the rest of the management team does too. You're seen as someone with a lot of creativity, vision, and leadership ability."

Jim: "Wow, that's awesome. Thanks! I'm glad to see my hard work has been noticed. While I really love what I do, I have aspirations to do more."

Manager: "That's great. How do you feel about Marketing? You seem to have a real knack for that kind of work. It's a growing department, so there may be opportunities in that area if you're interested."

Jim: "Sure, that sounds great. I have a degree in Marketing"

Manager: "Well, let's talk about how we could get you ready for that kind of an opportunity if it ever opened up. Of course there's no guarantees, so let's make sure your development plan is focused not only on this option, but others as well, in addition to making you stronger in your current role. First off, how would you like to lead the new branding task force? I know it would be a stretch for you, but it would be great development and exposure, and would help develop your influence skills as well. I could talk to Charlie, our VP of Marketing, about being a mentor for you."

Two years later:

Charlie retires, Jim is named as his replacement, and everybody lives happily ever after.

In summary, follow these guidelines for high potential notification:

1. Don't tell someone they are an "A1", a successor, or even a "hipo". Skip the labels.

2. Do let your best people know that they are valued and discuss potential future opportunites (with no gaurentees).

3. Be clear with people about their development plans. Let them know if a project is for development and why.

4. Careers and development should be a two-way discussion. Find out what the employee desires and inform them about company needs.


Sharon Markovsky said...

Dan, this is a great blog! Interestingly, I have experienced both the “too light” and the
“too heavy” notifications. Never had the "just right" notification, but I am hopeful. I wonder how many times the manager never actually comes through with the promotion promised in each of the notification types.

If I may, I would add just one more scenario...the "read my mind" notification. I have had conversations with VPs/Directors/Managers that lament the resignations of their high potential people. When I ask them if they ever discussed career paths with these “lost” high potential folks, more often than not they say well I hinted at it. And they wonder why the person left! Even a person with a strong internal locus of control needs to know not only that their stellar performance is being noticed at differing levels of the company, but also that a promotion is on the horizon.

leadership401 said...

This is an insightful distinction with relevant applications in the talent management agenda. It shows the need not only for intentionality in the leadership development initiative but also a plan that implements the intent at every level of leadership: emerging leaders, mid-level leaders, and senior leaders.
Dick Daniels
The Leadership Development Group

Anonymous said...

Great post. I enjoyed the comparisons and guidelines for notifying the high performers. Having been in middle management for many years, I can't say I've seen much of it actually done. Your words and thoughts are certainly needed. You should also post something on succession planning. I don't think 'most' companies have a process for it. I would be surprised if 30% of companies had an idea of what succession planning really is. Research I've seen implies a big gap here. My experience with it goes something like this, "okay, Bob just quit. Who can we give his responsibilities to? The good news is we just created a little more room in the department's budget.'

Dan McCarthy said...

Sharon -
Thanks! The situation you are describing is what I was getting at in my "too light" scenerio. It's all too common.

Dick -

Anon -
Thanks. I've written quite a bit on the topic of succession planning. You're right, it's often overlooked until it's too late.

Unknown said...

I think this post is terrific. It's a great example for business/employee situations. I'm curious if you have any feedback or ideas for non-profit volunteer organizations looking to develop future leaders. Since they're volunteers that we've identified might make good future leaders, how would you approach them differently than paid employees?

My experience comes from asking volunteers to be lead on certain projects -- response usually comes in the form of "more work...still no money?!"

Any ideas?

Dan McCarthy said...

VP -
Thanks. No, I've never worked for a non-profit. But I can tell you that many companies often use volunteer assignments as a way to develop their leaders. Paid or not, either way the person needs to be motivated to develop, and have a development goal. The assignment then needs to be tightly aligned to their development goal, or it will come across as just more work.

Chris Young said...

Great post Dan! Some of the most sensible advice I've heard on this topic for some time...

I've shared your post with my readers in my weekly Rainmaker 'Fab Five' blog picks of the week (found here: to give them some guidance should they be struggling with how to approach their HiPos.

Be well Dan!

- Chris