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Top 3 Mistakes Organizations Make When Identifying High Potentials

October 29, 2018

In fairness, many organizations still don’t do much work around high potential talent and succession planning. Therefore, the organizations that do have programs to identify and develop high potentials are definitely on the leading edge. That being said, many organizations are still managing their way through the early stages of the talent management life cycle, especially as they relate to high potential talent. They are so focused on getting a “program” or “process” in place that they either overlook key objectives, or focus on the wrong information or issues. Below are questions that address the three mistakes I come across when working with organizations on their succession planning initiatives. 

1. Does the individual want to move up in the organization?

The large majority of organizations are looking to identify high potential talent so that they can develop and promote them into key leadership roles. For international companies in particular, high potentials typically will have to complete at least one international assignment to broaden their experience before moving into a higher-level role. One predictor of future success for potential leaders is fit, both with the organization and with a leadership role. It's important to remember that some individuals are not motivated to be put into a leadership position and/or are unable to work abroad. This is a hugely important piece of information AND it is fairly easy to obtain. At the most basic level, having a conversation with the employee about their status, interests, and motivations can provide organizations with enough information to make sure they are investing in the right population. Also, the organizations that really excel have a non-leadership expert path that allows high performers and high potentials to grow within a role that doesn’t require leadership. These types of experts are invaluable to organizations. 

Related: 5 Steps to Developing a Pipeline of Leadership Talent

2. Are we just identifying someone just because it is easy? 

We have all heard about the “Peter Principle,” the idea that organizations have a tendency to promote people until they reach a level of their respective incompetence. Unfortunately, this practice does happen on a regular basis. I have seen organizations put employees into HiPo and developmental programs for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps there is a vocal leader that is pitching to get some of their employees into the program. Perhaps there is a great individual contributor who has been with the company for many years whose leader feels he/she owes a promotion or a pay increase. Perhaps someone suggested picking a certain number of individuals from each department to keep things fair. These are all organizational challenges that we face as HR practitioners. We need to advocate to make sure we are spending our valuable training dollars on true high potentials. This is not to say that everyone else shouldn’t be developed (because I believe everyone should be), but rather that more attention should be given to critical individuals within the organization. 

Here's what you need to know:  Identifying High Potential Talent: An Expert Interview

3. Should we tell the individuals they are a high potential?

I am fairly bored with this conversation. I thought it was done, but I heard it again at a conference recently. Some (although a much smaller proportion than in the past) organizations still are either not telling high potentials that they have been identified in some way, or they are spending a lot of time talking about whether they should or should not tell them. The research on development, organizational commitment, and turnover are pretty clear about the benefits of being open and honest with employees

I think to overcome these types of mistakes we need to take a step back and remind ourselves (or perhaps develop for yourself) what the key goals are for identifying high potentials and succession planning. If it's to develop leaders and have in-depth talent discussions with the C-level, then these are easy mistakes to overcome. Going back to basics and using common sense is a good starting point. Additionally, and much more difficult, is to ensure we have C-level buy-in for the goals of these initiatives.

High Potentials: A Business Case for Identifying High Potentials

Paul Glatzhofer Paul Glatzhofer is the VP of Talent Solutions based in the Pittsburgh office of PSI Services LLC. He works primarily with organizations that are implementing global assessment and development systems at the leadership level. Paul’s work includes leadership development, leadership skills training, coaching, leadership and executive selection, turnover and ROI analysis, and ongoing feedback development.