[High Potential Employees] How Do You Choose the Chosen Few?

The question from my client was common: who do you spend limited resources  for coaching and development of high potential employees? And, even harder, how do you know it’s money well spent?

The  takeaway from working in and around corporations for almost 30 years is that most of the efforts spent on high potential employees – employees who their employer has deemed as having the skills, abilities, and interest to move to more senior positions with the corporation – is a waste.

It is a waste because the wrong people often get chosen for the wrong reason while frequently the right people never get chosen at all.

At it’s worst, high potential (also know as “hi po”) programs are a bad version of “who do you love?” Winners of the contest are those most obvious, or those that grouse the most if not chosen. It’s the latter group that should be excluded from the programs but seldom are – and they’re the folks that either take seats from others who should attend, or dilute the value by spreading fixed resources over more participants.

The other sin is the people that are not chosen – the folks who later somehow manage to become general managers or CEOs – and no one can figure out how. The clearly have skills and abilities: how was it that the hi-po filter passed them by?

Tammy Erickson, writing in the Harvard Business Review, asked the question “Are High Potential Programs An Anachronism?” She writes “Perhaps most important, we need to recognize that individuals have the potential to grow in multiple dimensions — and not all paths do or should lead “up.”

The emerging body of research from Anders Ericsson through Carol Dweck to Angela Duckworth tells a pretty powerful tale. What counts in performance is trying and grit, and that perseverance (and the interest, stamina, and dedication that go with it) to put in the requisite long hours is what separates the haves in talent from the have nots. While we may all be born with some gifts, it’s the doing, the trying, the persistence which is many times the big difference in how things turn out in the end.

So for choosing who gets added resources and who doesn’t, let me suggest three or four filters or steps that you could deploy which would give you better results, less heartache, and fewer sleepless nights:

  • Are all positions with a company the same, or are some more high value (or high leverage) than others? While I might love my engineers for example, is it the on the ground sales rep that spells success of failure for a firm? If it’s the latter, I want to nudge resources to the sales role over any others.
  • Are all employees likely to go into all roles, or is it more likely (you can make it easy: survey people) that some are interested or predisposed to some roles (e.g. those high value / high leverage roles) as opposed to others. Are things like relocation or travel, or even overseas assignment part of those critical roles? (And when I mean a part, it’s a “there is no other way to do the role than travel or relocate” type of gig)
  • What do you know about the performance difference that separates OK performers in those high leverage / high value roles from great performance? Can directed resources (effective coaching, training, development) move that needle up significantly. If not, why waste the effort? If so, sounds like a wise investment.
  • Do you have an effective way to assess people who have the skills, interests, and time to fill those identified roles. This is not rocket science, but a little work in developing a decent competency based assessment / selection process pays in weight in gold. This is a case of go slowly to move fast (later) – figuring out this competency stuff is like mining gold (or platinum).
  • Interest and potential is not a one and done: people who may have no interest one year (small kids that take a high priority at home come to mind) may be interested and ready two years later. Unless the talent plan is to have everyone kick the bucket at 55, smart employers will tap both younger and older employees for development opportunities. You have to ask though: assuming things – that old “ass” out of “u” and “me” stuff means that you will miss out on folks if you don’t circle back and check regularly and periodically with everyone.

So the 1-2-3 goes like this; Are there roles that we need to invest in, and if so, can we make a difference to the business? How can we make that difference? And how do we assess folks to make sure that the people who are most likely to go into those roles get the added development / coaching / training to pay a return on the resources directed their way?

It’s not hard – it just takes some thought.

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 and team coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above.