For most of the past 17 years, I have had clients asking for help selecting candidates for their High Potential programme. Typically they either:

  1. have a framework that describes who is a High Potential, and are wanting help to match people against that framework; and/or
  2. they have a group of High Potentials already selected, but need help validating what it is that makes these folks HiPos in their context (so they can find even more).

I have always started from the assumption that these clients knew their own business and therefore knew what they were doing; but over the years, as I have looked at the data we then collected and analysed for them, I have reached an inescapable conclusion:

these aren’t the droids you are looking for.

Let me be clear: I absolutely believe in individual potential and talent, and I also absolutely accept that there are some character traits that make a person unlikely to thrive above a certain level in a large organisation. It is also entirely self-evident that unmanaged self-derailers will stop anyone from advancing in their career. But I have come to the conclusion that the myth of the HiPo candidate is a dangerous one. Let me try to explain what is wrong, and then reframe the problem so that it has a solution.

Let’s start with scenario a). Unless you have a framework that is the result of regression analysis on a large data set from your own and other identically-functioning organisations, based on credible and objective ranking of senior executives and the drivers of their behaviours, forget it. Such a framework may exist*, but I have yet to see it presented to me by a client. Instead, we have theoretical (rather than empirical) constructs which may have sold a lot of books, but which never actually drove a business to success; or which - more usually - represent one part of the necessary mix for a team of leaders, but omit the other 2-3 critical elements.

Why does that matter? Well, one-eyed (having one strength to the exclusion of all others) senior teams kill more enterprises than market forces ever dreamt of. You may think you are distilling the secret sauce, but you are more likely reducing your long-term leadership pool to a fatal draught.

What about scenario b)? “We have some HiPos identified, we just want to know how we should manage them, and how can we add to their number.” Fabulous. What have you actually identified?

The likelihood is that, regardless of how much post hoc rationalisation has gone on, what has happened is this. Existing senior leaders all nominate people they either know to be doing great work, or of whom they have heard good things. We form them into a pool, and start to prepare them for greater things. As this includes rotating them between assignments, we find that some fall by the wayside, and some thrive on the variety. We are narrowing the field…

No, we are misunderstanding what we are looking at.

What we have almost certainly identified is the people in our organisation who are actually in the right role.

Why do we think highly of them, and why do we hear only good of them? Because they are in a role that perfectly matches their motivations and - probably - doesn’t expose too many of their potential derailers, or at least the ones they haven’t worked out how to manage. Then we put them on a fast track programme with significant rotation and exposure, and that works for some of them and not for others. The process is essentially (extremely) wasteful, because people who were performing brilliantly in a role which suited them, have now been turned into HiPos who failed to make the cut.

Here’s how you could play it, differently and for much greater gain.

Throw away any unvalidated frameworks (scenario a). That was never going to help you. Start in the same place as scenario b) but resist the temptation to declare these to be your HiPos. (You are surrounded by HiPos; this methodology will uncover their potential).

Instead, ask yourself (and their peers and leaders) what it is that appears to be so wonderful about them. Use an objective, well-validated instrument to identify and measure a) their motivations and b) their perceptions**. Compare the answers to the first question (“what’s so wonderful…?”) with the data you have gathered. You will now be able to explain exactly what is so wonderful and why it works. Please note: the explanation may not be at all what you were expecting.

You now have data that not only explains what you and others have been observing, but also will be highly predictive of how this person could develop their career and their talent. It will warn you if pulling them off their current assignment for high speed rotations is going to be counter-productive. It will tell you how to recognise when things are not working for them, and how to save the situation.

And yes, it should even allow you to independently validate whether or not they will be willing to pay the personal and relational price, required to make it to the top table. (There are plenty of people who will change the world, and your company or division, from two or three levels down, when being pushed towards the top would finish them off.)

More importantly, you can now coach this person as to how they can manage and master their potential derailers, manage and lead better and so on; not  by using a “one-size-fits-noone-very-well” approach, but according to exactly who they are.

Repeat the process until you have been through your bench of ‘wonderful’s. Believe me, you have learnt a heap already, especially about your organisation. (You may have thought you were looking at individuals: you are, but in their social and organisational setting; that is, your company.)

Now tackle the next bench: the people we had expected more of, but who aren’t quite living up to expectations. Repeat the process. What are we seeing that seems to keep them below expectation? Collect the motivational and perceptual data. Starting to make sense? Now these you may want to move - either by tweaking their roles until they have the fit they need, or by moving them laterally as far as it takes. There may be some who belong in another career or organisation. That’s fine, but never start from that assumption. 

You now know a heap more about your organisation, and how it actually operates. Somewhere along the way, you will probably realise you are getting close to understanding what the mission of the organisation truly is: capture that (it may or may not be on a corporate wall already; where it will be, is in a good number of the people you analyse).

Keep repeating the process. Don’t forget the C-suite, although generally they are too small a sample to tell you anything statistically valid, in isolation. But you are developing a deep understanding of how motivation relates to performance, in your organisation. By the time you are finished (if not long before that point) you will realise that you now know how to recruit using motivational data, backed up with perceptual data.

Perhaps you think this sounds like a lot of work. However, if you have ever had a company-wide HiPo programme stall on you, you might see this differently. This approach allows you to start from what is already working, and then understand and leverage that, instead of misdirecting and losing talent (albeit with the best of intentions). The big difference is that analysing performance using motivational and perceptual data actually works; and so does using that data to predict future performance.

*Actually it does, and I use it every day. But it doesn’t make the mistake of categorising anybody as HiPo or not HiPo; instead it identifies - statistically - where their High Potential could take them.

**We use and recommend TBM (The Birkman Method); there is not another tool which gives you this data in such a fine-grained and reliable manner. Let alone with 70 years of developmental track record, and a client list to die for.

Originally posted on LinkedIn - Published March 28, 2016