Stocking the High Potential Talent Pool: Are You Selective Enough?

One talent management problem that I frequently encounter in my work with global companies is a flawed nomination process for entry into high potential programs. High performance is often conflated with high potential when, in fact, the two are radically different. An employee can register off-the-chart performance in a current role, but still lack the aspiration, drive, interpersonal skills, or mobility to succeed at higher levels. In fact, it’s estimated that only two in ten high performing employees are also legitimate high potential development candidates.
A key contributor to poor candidate selection is that “potential” is measured subjectively in many organizations and rarely defined according to detailed requirements. Lack of established criteria and the absence of gatekeepers with the authority to reject nominees lead to high potential programs that are a grab-bag of employees, many of whom are there for the wrong reasons. The three most common misuses of high potential programs are:
Retention – Admission is used frequently as a “carrot” to entice a valued but restless employee to stay with the company. This is usually a results-focused worker who is highly favored by the line manager because of consistent performance. However, when benchmarked against other high potential candidates and vetted against leadership criteria, the employee does not belong in the program. A better approach? Provide such employees with other development opportunities, such as one-to-one career coaching, or additional challenges to engage their interest.
Remediation – Sending an employee to a high potential program can also be a substitute for confronting performance issues directly. Some managers misunderstand the purpose of the program; others hope to avoid the responsibility of working one-on-one with the employee to rectify problems. A case that comes to mind is a high performing early career manager with a history of pushing too hard for results. Jane (not her real name) was known for coercing others to get what she wanted and had offended many. Her supervisor nominated her for the high potential program in the hopes that Jane would learn interpersonal skills. With no gatekeeper for the nomination process, she got into the program. As you might expect, Jane did not perform well with her peers and was given considerable developmental feedback. Shocked and distressed by the experience, Jane became disengaged and left the company one year later. The organization lost a talented leader who, with the right performance management support system, may have contributed significantly over the long term. Strict criteria, improved education for line managers on employee remediation, and a gatekeeping structure that prevents political selections can help prevent such situations.
Reward – This is a tough call for a manager: admitting that a highly valued performer does not have the “right stuff” to advance into a leadership role. Often such employees are nominated as a reward for past performance and, unconsciously, in the hopes that leadership potential will somehow “rub off” on them during the program. A better course is to find opportunities to show high performers how their contributions are valued and have one-on-one career discussions that assure them of continued growth opportunities and rewards.
A high potential program represents a significant investment of time and money. Does your organization have a selection process designed to make that investment truly pay off by focusing on the right candidates? Are you successful in avoiding the Three Rs?


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