In terms of leadership development and culture sustainability (for good or bad), the selection of high-potential (HiPo) employees is probably the most important decision you’ll make as a leader. After all, these employees are the people who you’ve identified as the next leaders in your organization. They will be charged with sustaining your organization’s performance or turning its performance around. They represent the new guard who will eventually take the reins from the old guard.

This idea is nothing new. We all have our HiPos. However, there are a number of important considerations that we rarely address: how do we select our HiPos? How do we differentiate between the HiPos and the MiPos (middle-potentials)? What about the MiPos that are almost HiPos? What leadership development resources do we push toward the HiPos, and how do we know that we are not creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? What if the same resources, given to the MiPos, produced similar results? How do we know that we are not just picking the people who are most like us and, thereby, perpetuating our cultural norms and ways of doing business (whether they are valuable or not)?

These questions are a lot to think about, and most organizations do not consider them as they select and develop their HiPos. However, ignoring these questions leads to a number of negative outcomes.

Focus on the MiPo or the HiPo?

Some HiPos are just that: high-performing individuals with a combination of intellectual horsepower, energy, insight and grit that will enable them to succeed, no matter what situation they are in. These folks need little in the way of help and generally rise up through the ranks by dint of their enviable combination of character traits.

Then, there are the people who have only some of these traits, or who have underdeveloped traits, that cause us to say, “If only Judy had a little more strategic insight, she’d be a real HiPo.” In the selection process, the “true” HiPo (let’s call him Jeff) is exposed to all manner of developmental opportunities, while poor Judy doesn’t make the cut.

Can we say we were right in our selection? No one knows, because Judy hasn’t been exposed to the myriad of developmental opportunities that we reserve for our HiPos. What Judy could have been remains a mystery.

What if Judy received those opportunities and Jeff didn’t? What if the developmental opportunities we usually reserve for Jeffs helped Judy close her gaps and become a HiPo? Would we not now have two HiPos, and couldn’t that double the value we created from our development program? Would it not also help us hedge our risk, since we don’t really know what will become of Jeff? After all, he might flameout due to an unforeseen personal weakness.

Certainly, development dollars are limited, and we can’t give everyone opportunities. But it’s still possible that we are squandering developmental dollars by spending them in places where they are not needed. It’s possible that we and our employees could benefit more by directing dollars at the “almost-HiPos” rather than the “true HiPos.”

Here is a chart that illustrates how we might reallocate our development efforts to create more value:

Development Effort Relative to Perception of Potential

Our efforts and resources may be better spent in trying to tip those almost-HiPos over the line to create more HiPos rather then in expending resources on people who probably will succeed anyway.

Self-fulfilling Prophecies

Another consideration when it comes to identifying and developing HiPos is the possibility of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is probably not true of the “true HiPos,” for whom there is little doubt about their combination of character traits that allow them to succeed. Rather, it may be true of those lower-end HiPos and MiPos. Is it possible that they succeed only because they participated in our programs? Given the ubiquity of the Pygmalion Effect and the act of focused development, this possibility would be no surprise.

When our suspicions of their future greatness are borne out, do we not pat ourselves on the back and bask in the glow of our profound intuition? Is it possible that their success is not borne out of our ability to spot HiPos but, rather, that it is an attribution error? Is it possible that they did not succeed because of our ability to spot HiPos but because we directed development resources toward them?

Self-fulfilling Prophecy of High Potential Labeling

What does it matter whether their success is due to our correct assertion of their potential or their access to developmental opportunities? In the end, we have HiPos to value for the organization. True, but there are a couple of pitfalls that may concern us:

Repeatability

We don’t really know why we had this outcome. Would people we didn’t pick have made even better HiPos? Did the HiPos we did pick even need these developmental opportunities in order to be successful? The net effect is that we are guessing.

Bias and Cultural Perpetuation

Without rigor in our selection process, we tend to select people as HiPos who match our ideas about what people need to be successful in our culture. We almost automatically select those who fit within the narrative of “what good looks like here.” We may also fall victim to other unconscious biases that tint the lens through which we look at talent. These tendencies are natural, but given these biases, we may build a culture of groupthink, where we all think the same way and come to the same conclusions — a self-reinforcing echo chamber.

While there is efficacy in selecting talent that, in many ways, matches the cultural attributes of our successful enterprise, in doing so, we risk losing out on alternate perspectives. If your organization is not as successful as you’d like it to be, perhaps an infusion of perspectives may be just the thing you need to move in a different direction.

Selecting and developing HiPos is a mission-critical process that requires a great deal more thought than we traditionally give it. Do it ineffectively, and you end up with fewer HiPos per developmental dollar; a homogenous leadership cohort; and frustrated performers who may have been high-performing, value-creating leaders if given the chance.

Share