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How to talk to people about their potential for advancement.

All Blog Posts, Assessment, Coaching, High Potential Programs, Leadership Development, Motivation, Performance Management, Succession Planning, Talent Management / 31.03.20100 comments

Discussing Leadership Potential

Several organizations go through great lengths to identify their high potential leaders (HIPOs), and then seem to operate on a “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy.  They fear that informing the HIPOs will cause them to coast or develop a sense of entitlement.  Furthermore, they worry that those that are not deemed as HIPOs may feel they have no future and decide to leave or slack off.   On the other hand, if you don’t inform the HIPOs, your brightest stars may assume their advancement opportunities with you are limited, and take that next headhunter call.  Other organizations wanting to upgrade their talent are more than willing to tell them how bright their future will be with them, even if you are not.    

One of the things that gets in the way of these discussions are the assumptions some organizations are making as they communicate potential including: 

  • Potential is a single trait—it’s not.  It varies by management level and is multi-dimensional.  
  • You have it or you don’t.  Not true, it is a continuum.  
  •  It doesn’t change.  Again, not true.  A key component of potential is the person’s aspirations and interests, which can change with life circumstances and experience.  
  • Performance and potential are treated as independent measures  (e.g.” 9 box grids”).  From a motivational and retention perspective, there is tremendous power in letting performance “trump” potential, especially at lower management levels.

 Thinking about potential as a dynamic, continuous, multi dimensional construct dramatically improves the quality of these discussions, particularly when done within the context of performance discussions.  If you assume that performance trumps potential, the key message to everyone is that before you can be promoted to the next level, you need to become a top performer (e.g. top 20%) in your current role.   That means the discussion for 70-80% of your people is focused on the “what’ and “how” of this year’s performance, celebrating their successes and figuring out how to fill their gaps.  The main message for people who are not yet top performers but are seeking advancement is that they need to master their current role before focusing on the next one.  While you can discuss their aspirations, interests, and career possibilities, the focus of the discussion with this group is on helping them achieve the level of performance required to be considered a top performer in your organization. 

The discussion with top performers who are also seen as having high potential is the kind most bosses love to have.  In this discussion you are celebrating their strong performance and signaling to them that they are highly valued and are seen by senior management as having the potential to move up in the organization.  You are also exploring their aspirations (not everybody wants to move up these days) and talking about some of the most likely next roles and what they need to do to prepare for them. 

The discussion with top performers who are not seen as having the potential to move up is the one that is most dreaded.  Keep in mind, a large percentage of these people love what they are doing and have no interest in moving up.  For these folks, the focus of the discussion is on celebrating their contributions,  letting them know how much they are valued, and communicating that they have a bright future with the organization.   

For those in this group with their hearts set on advancement, however, the conversation is a bit more delicate.  After hearing more about the roles to which they aspire, the discussion needs to focus on how the success factors for those roles are different, and where they are likely to have some gaps.  (E.g. Just because you are a great sales person doesn’t mean you will be a great sales manager.)  For openers,  you can talk about aspects of potential that are important in successfully advancing to all management levels such as conceptual problem solving, self-confidence, emotional control, and willingness to accept responsibility.   As you move to senior leadership roles, other facets of potential such as vision, adaptability, willingness to take risks, and stress tolerance come into play.  For additional ideas, there is an excellent book by Marshall Goldsmith entitled “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” in which he lays out the 20 most frequent career derailers. 


Why Can’t Executives Agree on their High Potential Talent?

Assessment, High Potential Programs, Succession Planning, Talent Management / 21.03.20100 comments

Heated Talent Review

In many of the talent review discussions I have facilitated at the top of organizations, I have been struck by how difficult it is for leadership teams to agree on who at one or two levels  level below them are their best bets for the future.  Often times it is because they are all using their own definitions of potential.  Some are touting the results their candidates achieve, while others focus on the leadership behaviors theirs exhibit.   Some highlight their candidate’s ability to see the big picture and handle complexity while others emphasize the experiences their candidates have had to prepare them for the next role.  So who is right?  All of them!  But until they start making “apples to apples” comparisons, little progress will be made in these discussions.

When facilitating talent discussions, it is much easier to come to agreement if you clearly define the four aspects of talent that need to be assessed and discussed (see below).  Then compare your candidates on each of these aspects so you can agree on both the strengths and the gaps of each candidate.  Otherwise, it is like trying to agree on which person is bigger, when one is measuring height and another is measuring weight.

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To foster more productive talent review discussions, install a common language for assessing and discussing talent using the following four definitions:

  • Performance—The extent to which the person achieved their objectives (“The What”) and demonstrated the appropriate leadership behaviors. (“The How”).  Most agree that both are important and neither is sufficient for sustainable performance.
  • Potential—A person’s capacity to be a top performer in a more senior role.  Do they have the mental horsepower to handle the greater complexity, the emotional intelligence to lead and influence others, the adaptability to manage change and handle stress, and the learning agility to learn from experience?
  • Readiness—The extent to which a person has had the experiences necessary to mold their raw potential into the capabilities required to handle the additional challenges and responsibilities at the next level. 
  • Fit—The extent to which a person is a good fit for the organization’s culture, leadership team, and current business situation.

Next Monday: How do you communicate to your High Potentials?



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