Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A View from Inside the Leadership Pipeline

We make a lot of assumptions about “high potentials”, such as:

- They should be told that they are high potential
- They should not be told
- Their status should be informally implied
- If you tell them, it will be a motivator
- If you tell them, they’ll become more of a retention risk
- If you tell them, they’ll get complacent, or arrogant
- They should get more development than others
- They should get less development that others (they don’t need it as much)
- They want more responsibility
- They’ll see more responsibility as just more work
- They are great developers of others
- They don’t develop others, they’re too selfish

I’ve heard every one of these statements made about high potentials – from managers, HR, and those responsible for talent management. I may have even muttered a few of them under my breadth myself. But what about those who have been identified as “hipos” – have we ever asked them for their opinions on what being high potential means to them?

The Center for Creative Leadership did. During an eight month period from October 2007 through May 2008, information was collected from 199 participants attending CCL’s open-enrollment leadership development programs.

After having managed high potential programs and individuals for over 20 years, as well as my own direct experience as “one of them”, I found the findings to be very interesting.

Here’s a summary from CCL (you can read the full report here):

1. Respondents say formal identification as a high potential is important.
Most survey respondents (77 percent) place a high degree of importance on being formally identified as a high potential in their organization. The study showed several clear differences between high potentials who have been formally named and those who are perceived to be high potentials. Notably, only 14 percent of formally identified high potentials are seeking other employment. That number more than doubles (33 percent) for employees who are informally identified as high potentials.

2. High potentials expect more development, support, and investment – and they get it.
High potentials receive more development opportunities – such as special assignments and training as well as mentoring and coaching from senior leaders – than other employees. This is as it should be, according to the respondents: 84 percent of high potentials agree that organizations should invest more in them and other valuable talent. The extra investment is one reason why being formally recognized as a high potential is considered important.

3. High potentials feel good about their status – but it has its downside.
Survey respondents generally expressed positive feelings about being identified as a high potential by their organization. At the same time, the designation isn’t exclusively a win for those in the pipeline. For some, there is a feeling of increased pressure or anxiety around high expectations or performance; others experience frustration around the organization’s unclear intentions.

4. High potentials are more committed and engaged when they have a clear career path.
The most frequently mentioned way to increase commitment and engagement among all high potentials is to help them identify a career path. High potentials want to have a picture of where they are going and to understand next steps in terms of development, experience, and movement. In addition, as high potentials receive greater responsibility, they are also looking for greater authority to make decisions that have a significant impact on the organization.

5. High potentials help develop others.
While high potentials are the recipients of increased opportunities and investment, they are also talent developers in the organization. Many (84 percent) are actively identifying and developing potential in others. They have insight and experience that is needed for developing the next layer of high potentials, as well as the larger talent pool.

My recommendations:
We need to be careful about making policy changes based on a relatively small sample. Every organization is different, and there are no black & white, cookie-cutter answers when it comes to the management of high potentials. However, given the results of this research, as well as my own experience, I would recommend the following:

1. When choosing between full disclosure and cloak and dagger, lean towards creating as much transparency as possible. The advantages of telling them just seem to outweigh the potential risks of uncertainty. You’ll get higher engagement and commitment, better retention, and higher performance. So what’s not to like? Sure, there’s always going to be the risk of creating a little prima donna, but if that happens, I would seriously question that individual’s ability to lead.

2. Differentiate when it comes to leadership development. High potentials need it, they expect it, and the investment will give you a higher ROI than if you spread your resources around like peanut butter.

3. Expect a lot from your high potentials. Yes, it does create a certain degree of pressure, but again, they want it and will thrive on it. One of those expectations should be the development of others. I have to admit, I’ve always been a little gun-shy about asking hipos to be mentors and coaches. I’ve been concerned with putting too many demands on them, and had doubts if they would be as motivated to help others as they would themselves.
However, after reading this research and reflecting back over my own experience with high potentials, it’s going to happen anyway. People who want to get ahead and learn are going to gravitate towards high potentials. In most cases, they are all too willing to help out.

How about you? Do the research findings challenge any of your assumptions about the management of high potential talent? Do you agree or disagree on my recommendations?


Greg Strosaker said...

Great post Dan, and I love seeing some data to back up your recommendations. Contrast your post to this one from the HBR yesterday ( stating, without supporting evidence, that meritocracy is a false theory, essentially stating that high potentials should be blended in with the rest and not given differentiated advancement opportunities. I far prefer your conclusions.

Jeff said...

I agree with the recommendations above based on past experience as a hipo and having been in a position where I've identified hipos. Like you say, there are no cookie cutter solutions, and the optimal course of action as it relates to hipos is highly dependent on their individual traits. That said, by virtue of being a hipo, things such as engagement, reasonable pressure, and strong goals should be applied in all such cases to ensure growth.

Mary Jo Asmus said...

Dan, what a wonderful post! My favorite point of agreement is to "expect a lot of your high potentials". It's brilliant. The idea of asking them to coach and mentor others is great because coaches and mentors learn as they do so. But they need to be continually stretched in other wasy, too. If that doesn't happen, they'll take all those development dollars you spent on them to your competitor.

LTC Performance Strategies said...

You did a great job of laying out the assumptions of high potentials. We agree that a tendency towards transparency is best. But too many times we’ve seen a company recognize their high potentials and then do nothing to follow through. Those employees are left thinking, “Now what?” Employers identifying and recognizing high potentials must be prepared to follow through and help those high potentials develop a plan for further success. Like you said "High potentials are more committed and engaged when they have a clear path."

Dan McCarthy said...

Greg -
Thanks. I took a look at the HBR post... strange.

Jeff -

Mary Jo -
Thanks. yes, they sure will.

Agree! thanks.

Wigarse said...

This is great for the high potentials, but what about everyone else? I read a study (unfortunately I can't remember where)that showed singling out the high achievers/potentials had such a negative effect on the others in an organisation or culture that the overall effect was to lower achievement and productivity.

As a high potential, I would personally rather see the team do the best it can and me be a part of that than receive special treatment at the cost of others and the overall outcome.

By focusing on only those identified as being the brightest, this study ignores some of the wider pitfalls of such an attitude. Perhaps it is better for the organisation as a whole to loose the higher 33% of high potentials for whom recognition is more important than success, but get the best out of everyone else? Normal average potential people will, after all, make up by far the majority of staff in any organisation.

virtual assistant company said...

thanks for the post

Ned Keitt-Pride said...

@Dan McCarthy - Thanks for the post, Dan, and for bringing up an interesting and important topic for any organization. The implications of handling any group of employees has ramifications that extend beyond that group. Having a plan in place for getting the most out of all your employees is important if one wants to avoid a situation like @Wigarse warns of. I think that much of that can be mitigated by approaching the issue from a very different angle - what if you saw everyone as a hipo? Perhaps not everyone can be a great leader, but why can't they be a great fabricator, manager, engineer or HR rep? Rather than focus on an area of activity, like leadership, and developing candidates for that activity why not place the emphasis of employee development on ensuring that each person is in a position that matches their talents and passions? In this case *everyone* can then become a hipo.

When using a team of oxen to plow fields, it is important that they are paired well so that they are both pulling on the yoke with the same amount of force. This makes it easier to plow straight furrows and it keeps the stronger ox from tiring too quickly. Having the right team balance is necessary for getting the most amount of work done most efficiently. In this analogy, I think of a worker and their responsibility level / activity level as the paired oxen. To be most effective, every worker should be pushed to their limits, encouraged to stretch and grow and given a chance to do so. Certainly some will do more than others, but everyone will do their best.

Dan McCarthy said...

Wigarse -
Thanks. when it comes to the topic of high potentials, I know a LOT of employees share your views. I'd have to respectfully disagree. Every does not perform the same, nor do they all have equal potential to move into higher roles. I believe employees should be managed and developed situationally. Yes, ALL employees get some kind of development - just not the same.

you're welcome.

Ned -
Thanks. You paint a nice picture of employee development that's hard to argue with. I'm still going to insist that organizations need to identify and prepare future leaders, and need to put apply on focused effort on that need. Again - not at the expense of other employees or professional disciplines.

thealphafemme said...

I understand where @Wigarse is coming from to a point - especially when you consider how many employees likely aren't ever considered as a hipo if they have a bad oand have no opportunity to have recognition, etc...

However, there is too much research data to ignore that demonstrates positive financial results and positively impacts business when you are able to identify, hire, & cultivate "A-level" talent. Further, if you are willing to lose your A-level talent for the sake of keeping the mediocre employees happy; you run the risk of taking too much of a "Dr. Spock" approach that is the equivilent of giving everyone on the team a trophy just for showing up. If we reward everyone equally, especially when there aren't significant accomplishments, where's the motivation to try harder, to be successful, to differentiate yourself?

Granted we want to hope that employees have the "needs of the business" in mind with their actions, but lets face it - people are inherently selfish. Those who understand that ensuring the business is successful ensures they are also successful (in theory) will try their best to make both happen to ensure their own career satisfaction.

Recognizing hipos and giving them a little something extra doesn't necessarily have to be - and shouldn't be - at the expense of other employees. Employers still have the responsibility to recognize, reward, and engage the rest of the employees - it's just done differently.

I hate to be a simpleton, but it's basic ROI. I'm going to invest X in these employees that I expect - and will likely get - a significant return from which will have a positive impact to my business. I can't see how coddling the status quo employee groups at the expense of employees who get results would ever be in the best interest of an organization.

Rythee Jones said...

Great tips, Dan. I find CCL's research to be so true of hipos, especially the point about providing a clear career path to foster greater engagement and comittment. I've worked with organizations that have hipo programs, but then wonder why the participants aren't excited about the programs that they can take advantage of. Most often the problem has been a lack of clarity about the next step in the promotional/development process. "What's-in-it-for-me?" is a universal question that must be addressed.

Dan McCarthy said...

alpha (love that name) -
Thanks. Right, I'm on your side of the debate on this one.

Rythee -
Thanks. Most hios tend to be career and goal oriented, so you have to show them potential opportunites without making promises.

Teresa Thompson said...

Totally agree with your position Dan! This is how I have lead HIPO's throughout my career. They crave the identification, challenge, and learnings. They especially desire face time with leaders above them.
Your Virtual Retail Coach!

Dan McCarthy said...

Teresa -

Chuck Conine said...

Superb post, Dan. You must be a great credit to your employer.

As one who has also worked in leadership development for many years I always appreciate points of view that have some basis in research.

You hit all the right notes, and I'd enjoy reading more.

Best regards,
Charles A. Conine, SPHR

Dan McCarthy said...

Chuck -
That sure was a nice comment. Thanks!

Result Based Leadership said...

This is a great post, Dan. Posts like this could really help other people become even better leaders make that goal reachable. Becoming a great leader isn't easy. You need to go through a lot of experiences to be molded into the best possible one. But reading from other people's experiences gives you an idea on how one thing could turn out if done. Thanks for sharing this!