The End of “High Potential” Employees: What Does It Mean for You?

My doctor Michael Sdao practices what he terms “evidence-based” medicine: he puts his faith primarily in approaches and procedures that have been validated by substantiated research. While it’s not necessarily the most daring of approaches,  in the main the outcomes (knock on wood) have been pretty good.

Organizations, on the other hand, are pretty hit and miss as it pertains to using human capital systems and processes that have been validated by evidence based research. Worse yet, even when research shows otherwise, many practices and beliefs survive, sort of like the urban myth cockroach that has thrived what should have been numerous killings.

Writer and career analyst Dan Pink has taken a whack out of the current way we motivate people by using certain financial incentives. Turns out it’s misguided and does not work, and the evidence to back it up has been around for awhile. Watch Pink debunk this sacred cow, from a speech he gave at TED, here.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, and the earlier foundational work of people like K. Anders Ericsson, Ralf T. Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Romer have debunked the idea of something reported as “brilliance” in people as a factor that separates people with “high” potential from those with “low” potential. Turns out, according to their research, that it’s not brilliance, but time and effort that enables expertise:

“In most domains of expertise, individuals begin in their childhood a regimen of effortful activities (deliberate practice) designed to optimize improvement. Individual differences, even among elite performers, are closely related to assessed amounts of deliberate practice. Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years. Analysis of expert performance provides unique evidence on the potential and limits of extreme environmental adaptation and learning.”

Selecting people by IQ / smarts is taking a beating as well, and similar to the debunking of brilliant expertise or what motivates people, the research has been around for awhile. In the 1950’s Ypsilanti educator David Weikart turned conventional knowledge on its head with his work with under resourced kids known as the Perry Project Study. What the Perry Project showed – get to “disadvantaged” kids early via solid preschools – is that it’s not IQ that separates achievers from non-achievers but it’s motivation. Participation in properly done preschools raises the ability of kids to achieve.

As Nobel laureate and Perry Project researcher James Heckman notes, “It’s true that IQ wasn’t raised by the study. But it is true that achievement was. And I thought that was amazing.”

And while Perry was about kids, you can draw a straight line between the outcomes in Perry and the research findings of contemporary work for adults today. One of the side notes of the Perry study was that along with motivation, early intervention in solid preschools produced a kid who tried more and tried better – both qualities we associate with better performers.

The next target to debunk will be that there’s a certain performance quality (calling Google) that you can automatically attribute to certain schools and not to others. We’ll save that one for a later piece.

So what does that mean for you?

It depends. People who work in certain organizations (those whose HR practices are not so evidence-based) will have to hope that the firm likes the cut of your jib, any favorable personality tests you might have taken, or how smart you seem. Those are the organizations that will place people based on incorrect conclusions on fast track / high potential programs and select them for leadership roles.

People who work for other firms – those that base their HR selection and promotion practices on research and evidence – will have a different experience. People will be selected based on a broad set of factors – things like how well they work with others, how hard they try, how well they persevere, etc. High potentials in those firms will be many and varied. As one person I know put it, “All of our employees are gifted. It’s just that some have different gifts than others. We think they are all great.”

As I wrote this blog I could not help but think of the number of people I personally know who went to the “right” schools, or had the “right” connections. Some have done well, and some have done not so well.

My subjective sense is that ones who have done well had the qualities research suggests in importance to achievement, higher motivation and success: they just happened to also go to blue chip schools, which may have had little or nothing to do with their success.