How do you define and measure high potential (and avoid elitism)
It is difficult to predict how people will develop as their careers unfold. Some high potential employees are obvious, others are harder to draw out. While there are tools to help managers identify and measure high potential, the process will always rely partly on human judgement.
Catherine Bardwell, TPC Leadership Associate Partner, and Peter Wall, TPC Leadership Associate, explore how clear roles, shared responsibility and an inclusive approach are key to successfully identifying and nurturing all high potential employees.
What are the key success criteria that define high potential?
High potential is usually defined by an employee’s ability, drive and social skills. Catherine stresses, “It’s a balance. You can’t just measure the results leaders deliver or their IQ. How they develop trust and motivate others is an important indicator of their emotional intelligence too.”
When C-suite members are looking to define high potential, they should take a holistic approach – consider a candidate’s emotional intelligence, their ability to work collaboratively across boundaries and how they influence teams. They will need to draw on all of these elements to achieve sustained high performance in today’s increasingly complex and diverse organisations.
Developing emotional intelligence starts with increasing self-awareness. This shouldn’t be underestimated. The more a leader understands how their personal feelings may impact reactions and decisions, the less likely they are to demonstrate subconscious bias or promote elitism.
Make developing people a performance objective
If leaders are to truly embrace and value the process of identifying and developing high potential, they must be measured on it.
Peter explains that best practice is for leaders to have “developing, identifying and nurturing people” as part of their performance review. “If you’re measured on it as part of your job, you’ll do it and you’ll take it seriously” he says.
The difference between good leaders and outstanding leaders, Peter explains, is that good leaders ask, “how do I get this done?” while outstanding leaders ask, “how can I use this to give someone an opportunity to stretch and grow?” They focus on the inputs at least as much as they do the outputs.
Some businesses choose to appoint an employee in HR to manage talent identification and development. The danger of this is that line managers may then abdicate responsibility for developing their people. The focus must be on shared responsibility – an HR professional may oversee development, ask challenging questions and act as a conscience, but managers are best positioned to spot, measure and nurture talent in their teams.
Share responsibility and adopt a coaching culture
The idea of shared responsibility in measuring high potential can be encouraged through creating a coaching culture. Catherine explains that a successful coach will provide three key building blocks:
- Create awareness within the coachee by asking probing questions that help guide them through a process.
- Offer choices – it’s not about one career path, but about exploring what’s important for them.
- Make the coachee responsible for their journey so they feel empowered to drive forward.
Peter explains that traditionally, when senior leaders try to manage and measure someone else’s career, they take a problem-solving approach. “They’ve learned to help people by offering advice telling them what they should do to fulfill their career aspirations – after all, that’s how they’ve got to where they are.”
“They’re trying to be helpful,” says Peter, ‘but a shift in mindset is needed. Now the best leaders are realising that they can help people make progress by supporting them, stimulating them, asking questions and challenging assumptions.” Their responsibility is to guide and oversee – it is the individual who takes responsibility for their own career journey.
There is a danger that measuring high potential can lead to bias, elitism and ‘cloning’ – where leaders subconsciously choose to develop people who are like them.
We have a human tendency to gravitate, particularly when under pressure, towards people whose personality fits with our own. Peter refers to when he worked as a coach with a team on an engineering project. The project was struggling, and the pressure was on.
Peter recalls the manager saying, “if everyone was just like me this would be so much easier” and immediately laughing in disbelief that he’d said it. Regardless of our values and best intentions, we can still revert back to a self-preserving mindset when the pressure’s on.
The best leaders then, will meet the needs of the business rather than their personal need for security or superiority. They will practice continual self-awareness and development and strive to make conscious, objective, fair decisions when defining and measuring high potential.