What is High Potential?

I am often asked to take a look at company’s talent review processes. The talent review process usually involves plotting talent in the 9-box matrix on the basis of performance and potential. Invariably, potential is described as “ability to move up 2 levels within the next 3-5 years.” My question is what do you base that assessment on? Usually it has to do with how well the individual is doing in his current job and his track record. Or it may be based on something similar to the definition of obscenity “I just know it when I see it.” Too often this causes high potential identification to be a bit of a beauty contest. Various ideas of what creates high potential go into the decisions when in reality these characteristics may have little to do with the ability for someone to grow rapidly in the organization.

I believe there are five key characteristics that differentiate high potential talent from other talent.

The individual wants to be a senior leader: There is always at least one person on a company’s high potential list who has no desire to move to ever higher levels in the organization. He may be very talented and meet the rest of the criteria I have listed here but if the desire for increased leadership responsibility is not there, he is not a high potential.

Adaptability: high potential talent is able to quickly adapt and adjust to changing circumstances. When a high potential is placed in a new situation, she is able to quickly assess the situation, learn what is critical to success in that situation and adjusts to it.

Continual learning: high potentials are always learning. He continually wants to grow and expand his understanding of where the industry may be going, how the business environment is changing, different approaches, different perspectives, and different components of the business. The high potential then integrates this understanding into how he gets results.

Impact on others. Being a senior leader means getting things done through others and leading others who often have more expertise than you. This requires the capacity to create a compelling vision and strategy that engages and motivates others to go on that journey with you.

Performance: This is usually the first characteristic people list as what differentiates high potentials. Usually, a high potential is a consistently high performer. Her performance is distinctly different from others. That said, high potential talent is at times in the wrong job. Yes, it’s true, even high potentials are not successful at everything. You may have a high potential that performs poorly in a role because of a mismatch. It is important to look at that situation and determine if it’s an anomaly or a new pattern.

Look at the high potentials in your organization that have been successful as they’ve moved up in the organization. See if these characteristics are what made the difference in their trajectory and how others moved in the organization.

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