How to talk to people about their potential for advancement.

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. 

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