Are the Right People in Your High-​Potential Program?

BY Kathy Crosett
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Every organization has them. In fact, the top 5% of employees in your company fall into this important category: your high-​potentials. These are the people who will drive a project to completion, who will work tirelessly to land an important contract, or who will absolutely, positively find the show-​stopping bug in the software upgrade you’re about to release. Many of these people comprise the next generation of your company’s leaders. Do you know which individuals should be placed in your high-​potential leadership development program?

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, researchers at the Zenger/​Folkman leadership development consultancy, checked out the types of employees three large organizations had enrolled in their HIPO programs. Managers at these organizations used a variety of tools, especially assessments from supervisors, peers and direct reports, to funnel candidates into their leadership development programs. Zenger and Folkman have studied this topic for several years and noted that organizations who used these types of assessments frequently fall into a trap.

They end up promoting the wrong people. Sometimes, it’s people who fit well into the existing culture. Other times, it’s people who gain visibility because they possess one characteristic the organization values – such as the ability to get things done. As the researchers point out, these folks often are unable to delegate, and thus fail as leaders.

When Zenger and Folkman checked out the employees who’d been identified as high potential, they discovered that over 50% were below or far below average in terms of leadership effectiveness. The employees who weren’t living up to expectations were failing in two key areas:

  • Unable to articulate and commit to strategic vision
  • Unable to motivate others

Clearly, there’s a disconnect between the organization’s intent and what’s actually happening. Zenger and Folkman recommend revamping the process used to identify high-​performing employees with leadership potential. The best candidates are not necessarily the ones who fit your culture or who are top individual contributors. Your process needs to identify who can motivate others and who can commit to the strategic vision.

Of course, you may still choose to promote individuals who lack the natural ability to perform as leaders, in order to reward them or to make a statement about your commitment to moving employees up the ladder. In these cases, make sure your weaker candidates sign up for extra leadership training and hands-​on practice so they can improve their skills.