Are Your “High Potentials” Really “High Possibles?”

By Karan Ferrell-Rhodes

Assessing human potential is a crapshoot. When a baby is born, what indications are evident to let you know whether the baby will grow up to be a serial killer vs. President of the United States? How can you look at a sea shell and determine whether or not there is a pearl inside? How does a leader of a company look at the mailroom clerk and determine whether one day that person will grow to lead a billion dollar division of the company?

The answer? They can’t.

As a talent professional, I have been present in hundreds of company leadership meetings, both observing and facilitating conversations during the talent assessment process. When it is time to discuss the company’s high potential pool of talent (the group which holds the company’s future in their hands and on which thousands of jobs depend), I’m always both amazed and disappointed when I hear executives say:

“Who? I don’t know that person.”
• “Why are we always talking about the same people? Don’t we have any other talent?”
• (S)he’s too [fill in the blank] or (S)he doesn’t have a strong enough skill set in [fill in the blank].

When these questions come up, I challenge the leaders to admit that their high potential list isn’t legitimate. A high potential is an individual who is a proven commodity, where there is a high degree of consensus of readiness for roles of greater scope and responsibility. If there are still major questions about an individual, then they are a “high possible,” or an individual where there is a strong possibility of future readiness, but more data or proof is needed before a final judgment can be made.

Now, it is true that most known facts about each employee are taken into account when a talent evaluation is completed, but it is the unknown data which sometimes causes employers to miss the mark and mislabel many of their employees.

So the obvious questions are:

How can employers get the unknown data?
• What data do they really need?
• Whose responsibility is it to provide the data? The manager? The employee? Human Resources?
• And who gets this information, and what do they do with it?

High potential employees are not only smart, they are professionally astute, dedicated, and passionate about the work they do. High potentials don’t want to be mediocre. They want to differentiate themselves from the masses in order to reach their professional aspirations.

So, what should company leaders do? Design a development environment which motivates high potentials to not only “WOW” their leadership, but also encourage them to unleash their hidden ideas and talents for the benefit of the organization.

Here are 5 strategies to incorporate when assessing high potentials vs “high possibles:”

1. Don’t assign the label of high potential, until they truly earn it: Top performers love a challenge. Be transparent and let them know that you have been impressed with their contributions thus far, but really challenge them to “take it to the next level”. Let them know that they are valued, you want to retain them in the organization, and their increased performance will give you additional information needed to help plan their next best career move in the company. Who wouldn’t be motivated after such a conversation?!

2. Ensure they fully understand the company’s vision, mission, values, and business strategy: How can your top performers adequately strategize their future impact if they are not clear on the priorities and direction of the company?

3. Give insight on what it may take for them to differentiate themselves from their peers: Top talent frequently does not fully understand the competitive environment around them. They know they are personally doing a good job, but they’re likely not clear about how their performance compares to their peers. Without breaching the confidentiality of others, provide your top talent insight or coaching on how to go about making the type of impact that will set them apart and impress company leaders.

4. Give permission to fail: This is a tough concept for most managers because in most organizations it is not politically acceptable to fail. In fact, individuals are rewarded for achieving successes and hiding failures. However, in order for game-changing impact to occur, managers must allow their employees space to try a new concept, course correct any failures, and try again. Of course, taking a chance on calculated risks vs haphazard risks is key.

5. Celebrate milestones: There have been many studies which show that the human psyche requires ongoing positive reinforcement to stay committed and focused on tasks and initiatives. Don’t wait until a major project is completely finished to celebrate. Celebrate each baby step accomplished along the journey in order to motivate your top talent to strive for the next baby step.

Now, step back and see who rises to the top! I bet you will gain better data about whether you have the “right feet in the right seats.”

Leadership PotentialKaran Ferrell-Rhodes is the Founder and Chief Differentiation Officer of Shockingly Different, a high potential leadership development consultancy headquartered in Atlanta, which helps individuals differentiate their leadership impact and brand. She was recently named one of Atlanta’s top 20 influential women by Rolling Out magazine and has led high potential leadership programs in organizations such as Microsoft, Comcast, and Blue Cross Blue Shield. Connect with her via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.

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