The Talent Test: The Problem with “High Potentials”

Cover of "The Talent Code: Greatness Isn'...

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The headline in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month blared “Employees with ‘High Potential’ Need to Know.

There’s just one problem. If you want to screw up talent, tell them they’ve got high potential – shorthand for they’ve been tapped and they’re great.


Research (Carol Dweck) shows that labeling folks doesn’t work to improve performance. In fact, labeling folks (“great,” “high-potential,” etc.) is more disabling then helpful.

But first the bad advice from the Journal article; “This is really a missed opportunity,” says Laurie Bienstock, from Towers Perrin. “You need to wonder how [organizations] are fostering the development of these high-potentials if they’re not informing them.

Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, notes research that great talent has this equation; “ignition” (another word for the the appropriate learning or skilling experience) + master coaching + deep practice of 10,000+ hours = great talent. In other words, it’s not something that comes built into you a birth. Great talent is something you develop by hard work, grit, lots of practice, and having coaching that engages you in a highly effective manner.

Dweck’s research demonstrates that labeling people as “good” – even with positive connotations such as “high potential”  – are partially disabled with a fixed mindset; I’m good, so I better not do anything different or risk getting worse.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith may be Exhibit A. Tagged as a “can’t miss” draft pick, Smith has carried the curse of being the first pick in the US professional football around like Sisyphus carries a rock. Bust was the word most often associated with his first 5 years. Now with a new coach (see Coyle’s formula for development) Smith is flourishing, not by pure talent, but by good development. Even the sportswriters – see Gwen Knapp’s Alex Smith is Proving Himself at Lastare on board with the change.

Cut to the chase.

Everyone has high potential; treat them as such. There is talent waiting (and wanting) to be developed everywhere in front of you.

Make training, skilling, and even coaching available to those who are interested and willing to spend the time – frequently in addition to their regular work – to develop themselves. The people who will really perform will be the ones willing and able to put in the time needed to get better.

If you want to develop your talent it’s the same formula that Coyle highlights; find good coaching, work hard, and practice deeply.

As for the others who aren’t working so hard to get better? They’re just living off their potential.


Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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