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Purposeful Talent Development: Identifying Your High Potential People

red pawn with line of brown pawns and magnifier
By Roger Pearman, Ed.D. , Robert Eichinger, Ph.D.

6 minutes

Organizations need to use science-based best practices to find and develop future leaders. 

This is abridged with permission from the original.

People who aspire to lead at the top of organizations are plentiful. But although many are called, few are good enough to make it. The current (and past and most likely future) supply of individuals with these rare capabilities is not enough to fill the opportunities.

Making it to and making it at the top requires a person to have basic portfolio of knowledge, skills, abilities and attributes, and it takes organizations committed to developing future leaders.

6 Characteristics of High Potential Talent

There is near consensus on the basic arrows in the quiver of those with the capabilities to make it—with “high potential.” There are six clusters:

  1. Cognitive power.  It takes a minimum IQ or amount of intellectual horsepower to problem-solve and do critical and analytical thinking at a level high enough to be competitive and win. 
  2. Motivation. Because of the life balance sacrifices involved in a full-throated run for the top, you really have to want it. 
  3. Learning agility. There is lot to learn. There is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty. Risky trial and error and correction. Changing to keep up with change. Global data bases. Few certain answers. Plenty of common challenges to solve and no rest until solutions are crafted. These require lifelong learning. 
  4. Emotional quotient. Most of the executive’s tasks involve influencing people up, down, sideways, and inside and outside the organization. Reading and responding to different people differently make up the key mindset. The art of reading people is a bottom-third skill for current top executives evaluated using 360 surveys. Treating and influencing different people differently is also a bottom-third skill. There is a large EQ gap to fill.
  5. Pattern mindset. The best of the top leaders have a systems mindset. They see patterns in information others do not see. They have a skill for essence detection. They see under the hood. They can find foundational causes others take longer to find or never see. They can explain how complex processes work. They have a block chain brain. Everything is connected.
  6. Brain management. Flourishing at the top includes managing well a lot of stress and frustration and tolerance. Demands on time and energy are high. Life/work balance is tested. There are failures and disappointments, long hours and travel. Attention and focus are key. All of this takes emotional hygiene. Emotional management. Keeping the brain fit. Being able to bring everything to bear. Resilience. Grit. Resourcefulness. Self-management.

These six things plus all the behaviors that come with them equals what is commonly labeled “potential.” People who have more of these six things are thought to have the potential to learn and grow over time and will be able to get to and flourish at the top.

There is substantial research and experience supporting the concept of “potential to learn and grow.” About 5% of the college graduate population would be considered as having enough potential to get to and perform at the top. Five of 100 graduates. The remaining 95 would make great employees and have material careers but are not good enough to get to the top. And there are non-college graduates with high potential as well. 

The opportunity to learn and grow has to be provided. Experience is the best teacher. The best practice is 70/20/10: 70% in challenging, expanding and broadening roles, jobs and exposures; 20% learning from bosses, colleagues and others; and 10% e-learning, courses, off-sites and personal learning. When we say “experiences,” these are not just any experiences but specific experiences. Not just any learning from others, but specific learnings. Not just any courses but specific courses.

Find the high potentials early. Attract them to internships. Give them opportunities to learn and grow from day one, all the way to retirement. Assign them to developmental bosses. Get them totally engaged. Work diligently to retain them. 

All of these best practices require identifying those with potential. Sourcing, attracting, acquiring, developing and retaining them over large chunks of time. We need to be able to evaluate the workforce and identify that small subset of people with high enough potential to get to the top and flourish.

The Weakest Link in Identifying High Potential Talent

Most talent review processes include nominations (mostly subjective) from bosses who believe they know who the high potentials are. Some organizations have highly informed and trained bosses who work hard to provide accurate nominations. Most bosses don’t get this right.

Asking for nominations is the fundamental flaw. Talking over the years to thousands of bosses involved in annual talent reviews, most do not look forward to the process and are not comfortable making the nominations. And the studies suggest they are not very accurate.  There are false positives—people are nominated, who turn out to be not good enough—and false negatives—people who have high potential that are not nominated. People who were qualified at one time but not anymore. Late bloomers who were not qualified before but are now.

There are five reasons for the inaccurate nominations:

  1. Most of the nominators are not high potentials. They are strong enough to have become bosses at several levels, but they are not among the top 5%. While little research speaks to this, we think it makes sense that the more you meet high potential descriptors, the better chances of identifying someone else who meets them.
  2. There is a values blockage. It is admittedly an elitist proposition that some people are going to be better leaders than others, so the idea that not everyone is top leadership material is hard for many to believe, much less support. As a result, some organizations no longer use the term or the concept of high potential. Regardless, it’s a thing, and this thing makes up about 5% of the working world.
  3. There is a practical reason for a false negative. It’s talent hoarding. This is when hard-working bosses who are trying to keep the ship afloat have high potentials, but do not want others to know, and certainly don’t want others to take those high potentials away. If they nominate their likely high potentials, the talent may be taken away from them for development. You nominate, you lose. 
  4. Most nominators will not be around when the nominated become legacy leaders. Most managers have all the trouble they can handle with producing short-term results. Investing time in a future for which they will not be present is a tall request.
  5. Most nominators are not well-informed. There is much research available on what exactly is a high potential. What do they look like, do and say? How can you tell? How would you know if you were interviewing one? If one was on your team? If someone else had one you also knew?

Help is on the way. All the research, studies and hands-on experience is getting us closer to a tight definition and a set of high potential characteristics that can be observed and noted. We think it is time to turn more toward science.

There are about five survey processes that purport to measure potential. We have one called The Knowledge, Skills, Abilities and Attributes of People with Potential. There are currently four others. Research is being completed and reported. The processes all measure most of what potential means with satisfactory psychometric quality.

We don’t have to rely on subjective nominations. There is a test that produces a score. The results can be supported by boss viewpoints. Since this is one of the most important tasks a leader needs to complete to maintain momentum toward organizational success, let’s convert to science.

Who are your vetted, validated and verified high potentials? Make an effort to find out.

Roger Pearman, Ed.D., and Robert Eichinger, Ph.D., are co-founders of TalentTelligent. Pearman was CEO at Leadership Performance Systems, a partner at Matrix Insights, and is and a board-certified coach. He is an award-winning author (I’m Not Crazy, I’m Just Not You; Hardwired Leadership; Enhancing Leadership Effectiveness and co-author of You), personality expert, and psychological type authority. Eichinger co-founded and served as CEO of Lominger International. Prior to Lominger, he was with Pillsbury, leading employment, affirmative action, training, management and executive development. At PepsiCo, he oversaw international executive development; at PepsiCo Corporate, he led executive development across the entire organization.

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