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09 Aug. 2012 | Comments (0)
I was the chronic underachiever through my early education. When a teacher would say, "Doug, you're capable of so much more," it didn't motivate me. My father had a better plan. He would say, "Get out of bed and get to work!" I always fulfilled my potential when my dad was leading me.
This early experience with my own alleged high potential makes me sensitive to what can go wrong when we try to accelerate the development of the (dreadfully nicknamed) "Hi-Pos" — the up-and-comers designated as "high-potential" by the firm. Indeed, of all the efforts to develop the capabilities of leaders within organizations, high-potential programs harbor the greatest risk of generating unwanted results.
As you plan to develop high-potential talent in your own organization, it's a good idea to consider whether you can live with these common side effects:
1. Training other companies' leaders. When a company recognizes just how many members of my Baby Boom generation are heading out the door in the next several years, its leaders are likely to tell me, "We need a high-potential leader program. Come give us one!" When I ask, "How will this fit into your leadership strategy?" there is often a dramatic pause. "What do you mean, 'leadership strategy'? We want to develop some leaders because we're going to run out terrifyingly soon."
If a high-potential program is not part of a well-conceived strategy for leadership development, your main result is going to be a terrific program for training the future leaders of your competition. It's simple math. You train 30 high-potential leaders each year for five advancement opportunities. How long will the 25 high-potentials who don't earn the promotion wait for their turn to move up? Two years after a global technology company started its high potential program, five of the top "graduates" jumped at the opportunity to create a new business within the biggest competitor. Why? They were tired of waiting for their next opportunity. If your program is part of an integrated talent development scheme, you've already thought about and discussed with them their potential roles for years to come. There's a much greater chance they'll stick around.
2. Dividing your workforce. How do you select the leaders for the first or second cohorts of your leadership program? If you are not transparent about the process, the assumption will be made that it's a system for rewarding "favorites." Any scent of favoritism fractures the climate of the organization. When I asked one leader to describe candidates were chosen for his organization's leadership academy, he snorted — "The usual suspects. High potential is another term for good ass-kissing." Paradoxically, the wrong process can ruin the credibility of those chosen rather than enhance it.
Let's say that you take nominations from each department or division, and the executive team or an HR committee makes final decisions. How clearly are your criteria based on the performance needed to develop the right kind of organizational culture? If criteria are not clearly communicated, then you will have different groups putting forward individual leaders for possibly conflicting reasons. And people will compare. "Why did so-and-so get nominated when I've delivered better results three years in a row?"
In another company, the overall reputation of the executive leadership was hurt because promises of future training opportunities vanished when budgets were cut. The nice talk about the importance of preparing future leaders was seen as empty rhetoric. Two runs of the program had generated significant interest among those leaders aiming to be more effective, so ironically the damage was compounded by the program's success.
3. Creating entitled prima donnas. If a program for high potentials is framed as a reward for extra-special people, it should come as no surprise when participants grow arrogant. I don't recall being motivated to achieve more when I was told that I was smart. Instead, I was motivated to seek more attention just for being smart.
Great programs for high potentials start with the assumption that those with great potential need greater challenges and demands — and then they get it. All communications within the organization about these programs must emphasize the Mission Impossible quality of participation: "Your mission, should you choose to accept it ..." High-potentials need a platform to demonstrate extraordinary results, not a free ticket to privilege. One client was particularly appreciative when I reminded him of the distinction between ambition for advancement and ambition for achievement. We revised its selection process to require those nominated to think hard about their desire to make a contribution. We eliminated the questions such as "why do you want to participate in this program?" Those questions tended to generate what I like to call "Miss America answers" — vague but glowing aspirational statements.
4. Undermining your core business. Are your high-potential program components linked to real and current business challenges? High-potential programs that take leaders away from their jobs week after week for classroom experiences, or that create projects unrelated to critical strategic business challenges, cost much more than the training fee. They reduce short-term business performance without demonstrating how they will improve longer-term output. Not long ago we met with the learning and development staff of a global energy company. They were proud to display the results of their leadership institute teams: more than 20 projects clearly tied to the company's current strategic objectives. Several promised real growth opportunities with new markets or new products and nearly all were well executed. Leaders learned great cross-boundary thinking, collaborative problem-solving, and more expansive understandings of their own capabilities, while making demonstrable contributions to the success of the company.
It was a great contrast to the many conversations I've had with organizations that were satisfied with building better humans in their leadership development. Building better humans is a noble task and should not be dismissed, but it can and should be done in the context of the mission and strategic direction of the organization.
Programs for high-potential leaders ought to be based on a thorough understanding of current business strategy and the culture necessary for future success. A leadership strategy tells you how you will accomplish the strategic business purposes through the development of the right people for the right challenges.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 07/17/2012.