No Potential, Know Potential

By: Nathan Wiita

Potential, potential, potential. Depending on which popular talent trend you look at (the “war for talent,” baby boomer retirements, etc.), potential—especially with regard to the identification, development, and retention of “high potential” employees—is a prevalent subject. Indeed, a prevailing concern for many organizations is the lack of an adequate talent pipeline of next-generation leaders.

For all the talk about potential, however, our experience and research suggests fundamental issues with its current conceptualization—which ultimately hinder the establishment of robust talent benches. To be clear, we aren’t saying high potentials aren’t important. We are saying that how this topic is currently conceptualized leaves much to be desired for both individuals and organizations. Let me explain.

  • First, in many organizations, the concept of potential is ill-defined. Too often, models of potential hinge on characteristics like motivation (a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient), ultimately leading to a focus on an individual’s ability to grow but not on what he or she can do. The question becomes, then, potential for what? Not surprisingly, many organizations struggle to predict something they haven’t clearly defined.
  • Second, potential is commonly confounded with performance. High performance may be the price of entry to be considered a high potential, but plenty of high performers fail at the next level. We see far too many organizations overindex on performance at an executive’s present level at the expense of considering what the individual can deliver at higher levels.
  • Third, potential—or specifically the lack thereof—can be a threatening label. Nobody wants to be labeled “low potential.” And delivering this message to your talent, either explicitly or implicitly, risks 1) demotivation, 2) disengagement, and 3) talent losses.

With these considerations in mind, we came to the conclusion that organizations are better served by approaching the “potential” question from a “readiness” perspective. More specifically, readiness to deliver in roles of enterprise scope and complexity. In this way, the answer to the “potential for what?” question is “potential to succeed in senior executive roles.” And, rather than looking backward and relying heavily on past performance, we look for signs of what could be delivered in the future.

We’ve found in our experience that telling high-potential executives they lack current readiness lands far better than telling them they lack potential, or worse, leaving them in the dark entirely on where they stand.

Identifying the Next Generation of Leaders: Part Two of a Three-Part Series


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