Almost every organization goes through a painstaking process to identify high potentials. But what leaders do with high potentials then is just wrong. We isolate them, give them some posh-abstracted development program, and then send them back to work. If we really want to benefit high potentials, we should recognize them for what they are: People who have the right routines to thrive in our social system.
I’ve worked with high potential populations around the world. They are always bright and eager, but they look different, in different places. A high potential in one environment doesn’t thrive elsewhere. They hold the key to the execution challenges organizations face, but only if we do the right things with them.
Often, we identify competencies and capabilities, and, while it makes those of us in learning and human resources feel better about ourselves, let’s be honest: That is not how work really gets done. A list of descriptors is no more what makes a high potential than a list of separate parts would make up a Bugatti Veyron. High potentials are distinguished in application; what makes them different are the routines through which they carry out their work.
We’ve known for some time that the competencies and capabilities we have come to love to catalogue in learning, “cluster” together. Skills do not live in isolation, they thrive in context. However, what we’ve largely failed to do is focus on the next question that should preoccupy us: where do they apply them? If we really want to help our high potentials, we shouldn’t isolate them and teach them abstracted variants of capabilities, we should study them and work to replicate their routines across broader populations — raising the tide for all ships.
In organizations, we have become very adept at identifying the “what” that distinguishes high potentials from the masses. We need to become equally adept at identifying “where” they apply this distinction. As organizations struggle to execute more at a faster pace, we would be well-served to use our high potentials as guides for lessons in the application of great performance.
We have to begin by identifying high potentials, but the next step is counter-intuitive. Study them. How are they different from the masses? There are a collection of questions that can help us understand how to identify and replicate high potentials’ routines:
- Where do they spend their time?
- What do they think that they do that is distinctive?
- What are the 3-4 routines they focus the most energy on?
- Where do they think their leadership really makes a difference?
Replicate this study with average performers, and look for the difference. Once we can codify what high potentials in social systems do that makes them exemplary, we can begin to unmask the keys to improve performance and execution at a much larger scale.
While we invest wildly in high potential talent development, we would be better served to use them as models of what we want to isolate and replicate in their peers. The organizations that win in the future won’t be those that pay more to get top talent, they’ll will be those that learn how to identify and replicate the practices that ensure everyone is high performing.
Todd M. Warner is the founder of Like Minds Advisory, a consultancy for veteran executives. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.
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