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Beware: All May Not Be Well With Your Company’s High Potential Programby Zenger Folkman March 16, 2017

Identifying high potential employees is a high priority for many companies. These individuals are the ones you will presumably count on to move to senior positions in the organization and ultimately enable to make the most important strategic decisions. They are the people you assume will possess strong leadership capability. In sum, they are the best and brightest, most capable, and highly motivated. So naturally, the company will groom them for positions of responsibility and power.

But what if companies are unclear about what they are seeking? Are these people all potential C-Suite executives? Or are they better aligned for one or two levels beyond their current role? But what if the organization is using the wrong yardstick to measure potential? Or worse still, what if you identify the wrong people?

My colleague Joe Folkman and I had our own concerns when we began analyzing data from three large, highly-respected organizations. Our analysis showed the following:

1. In a recent Harvard Business Review article we shared that more than 40% of individuals in Hi-Po programs may not belong there. We determined this by collecting information on 1,964 employees from three organizations who had identified these individuals as their high potential picks. We measured their leadership capability using a 360° feedback assessment that consists of feedback from their immediate managers, peers, direct reports and in some cases former colleagues or employees who had worked with them from two levels below them. On average, each leader had been given feedback from 13 assessors.We know this leadership assessment is a valid predictor of a leader’s effectiveness, because it has been highly correlated with organizational outcomes such as employee engagement, lower turnover and higher productivity in all three organizations. In fact, 12% of these individuals were in the bottom quartile and 42% were below average on their scores of overall leadership effectiveness. That is a long way from the top 5% to which they supposedly belong.

2. These individuals appeared to have been chosen primarily for current performance instead of long-term potential. In fact, we found three common characteristics these individuals possessed across all three organizations:

• Technical/Professional Expertise. Having deep knowledge and expertise goes a long way in terms of getting a person noticed and valued. When you are the only person with specific understanding and experience in an area, you are valuable to the organization.

• Takes Initiative and Delivers Results. When a person can be counted on to achieve objectives and deliver results they are viewed positively by senior leaders. When we asked more than 85,000 managers what was most important for their direct reports to do to be successful, their number one choice was “Drive for Results.” This was also the number one choice of secondary managers. Senior leaders in an organization appear to be willing to look beyond unproven leadership skills when they identify a person who consistently delivers results.

• Consistently Honored Commitments. When these people say, “It will be done,” it is done. Inevitably, this creates trust and a willingness to look beyond other skills that are not excellent.

In addition to these skills, we found that possession of a specific trait that fits well with the unique culture of the company and creates a positive impression is another factor that often plays a role in selection as a Hi-Po. One organization, for example, had a cultural trait of highly valuing “nice” people. Employees in this organization who showed high consideration and concern for others were often considered Hi-Po’s even though they lacked other leadership skills. Two of the organizations we examined valued people who would volunteer and become a champion for new programs or initiatives.


Read the article on Forbes.


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