High Potential Programs: Handle with Care
In theory, so-called “High Potential” identification programs make sense. Organizations and leadership should be aware of the employees who are most likely to become future senior leaders and who should be identified as potential successors for critical roles that may need filling. They should also be exposed to accelerated developmental opportunities to keep them engaged and prepare them for these future opportunities.
What I’ve observed in practice, though, is that these programs tend to be less effective than they are in the theoretical realm. Todd Warner recently wrote a brilliant article in the Harvard Business Review called Three Reasons Why Talent Management isn’t Working Anymore. Warner pokes holes in these programs as they are ordinarily implemented, pointing out how they tend to result in promotion of familiarity and compliance, and they proceed in lock-step according the plan instead of considering the complex contextual environment of your organization and evolving strategy, which tends to change over time. All of these issues are critically important and should be addressed when implementing any talent management and succession planning program.
There are additional issues that develop when implementing these programs that deserve some attention and thought. If leaders and HR managers consider these pitfalls, they are less likely to interfere with a thoughtfully conceived and effectively implemented program.
- “High Potential” talent management plans can alienate and drive away high performers who aren’t considered among the “chosen few” to be in the “HiPo” group. These high performers may have rightfully been excluded-or misidentified. After they leave for greener pastures, leadership tends to recognize this as an affirmation of their original choices-those who left weren’t committed, didn’t have the passion and talent that the “HiPo” group possesses, and their talent and performance fades in memory once they are no longer a part of the organization. This self-fulfilling prophecy can be a recipe for mediocrity.
- Perception is Reality. I have heard this come out of the mouths of managers in dysfunctional organizations, not as a warning, as in, question perceptions, and look for facts and analyze data to get true results. It has been spoken with a shrug and a sigh, as in, using your energy to promote the right perception among leadership is something we all have to do here. That is a complete waste of time and money, creates animosity and distrust among employees, and stands in the way of even small change initiatives. Just create the right perception of yourself and you will be in the “High Potential” group that is allocated greater Talent Management and development resources. This dysfunctional environment can cause even the most engaged team members to lose faith in the organization and can erase gains created by even a well-managed HiPo program. Once High Potentials are promoted, the rest of the organization hasn't been set up to trust them as leaders. The lesson? A culture of transparency and trust is key.
- Playing the Game. If HR isn’t careful, instead of performing the critically important function of giving strategic advice on succession planning and developing identified employees to ready them for promotion, we will end up creating an elaborate game in which only the team members who are highly manipulative and political-minded will end up the winners. Meanwhile, team members who could challenge the status quo, show true leadership and bring real success are overlooked, lose interest and move on to contribute to someone else’s bottom line.
- The Extrovert vs. Introvert Continuum and Gender and Culture Differences. One of the critical elements of a High Potential employee as compared to a high performing employee is aspiration. Aspiration, ambition and striving to move up are all qualities that can be present but may be expressed in different ways by true HiPo employees, but may not be recognized consistently by evaluators. Consider the differences in your employees and how they may express themselves based on who they are.
What should a wise Talent Management and HR professional do to combat these tendencies?
- Widen the circle. Who is reviewing the information upon which you base your identification of high potential employees? Yes, managers will fill out the same forms, and give evaluations based on the same criteria-but if only one or two team members are charged with making preliminary identifications, then you are entrusting your organization’s future to their analysis of the collected data and their ability to conclude what it says about the potential for future success. Maybe that makes sense, since your HR team is well trained in making recommendations like these-or maybe it doesn’t, and you haven’t even thought about it. Unless you are making decisions in a blind process and based only on objective criteria like assessment scores (highly unlikely and not advisable) then the perspective of every reviewer could be quite influential.
- Expand the data set. Does your team think they have the right people identified? Broaden the criteria you are looking at and make sure consistent criteria are being used to identify High Potentials. Bersin by Deloitte has a maturity model for High Potential programs, and at the bottom are programs that are ad hoc in nature, with no clear criteria. Make sure your program is fully business-integrated and consistent in order to get the best results.
- Calibrate Initial Decisions. According to Korn Ferry, 70% of High Potential employees are misidentified by managers in their initial assessment. Two-thirds of those initially identified are actually high performers, but not necessarily High Potentials. Misidentifying participants can harm their careers and interfere with organizational success by setting people up to fail.
- Evaluate results. It doesn’t matter how top of the line your HiPo program is if it doesn’t deliver the results you need for succession planning. According to CEB, five out of six HR professionals are currently dissatisfied with the results of their HiPo programs. Evaluating results and changing direction when needed is a best practice.
High Potential programs can be a useful tool for identifying successors and allocating development resources for the greatest return on investment, but the potential downside risk is high if the program is not carefully designed, managed and evaluated. For more information on the criteria commonly used to identify High Potential employees, see this overview in Forbes.
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