Did you know that only about 30% of high-performing leaders have significant advancement potential? These 15 indicators may help you find them.
When it comes to identifying high-potential (hi-po) leaders, the 9-Box has become a familiar template, largely because of its highly publicized usage at GE. However, the template provides no guidance on how to define “high potential.” Many large organizations view high potential as the capacity to reach a certain executive level (such as Vice President) within a specific time frame (5 years, for example). But that approach is not meaningful in smaller companies with fewer management layers. Any size organization can have difficulty differentiating genuine hi-pos from people who are solid performers but have limited potential to succeed in much more complex roles.
As noted in a Harvard Business Review article (“How to Keep Your Top Talent”; May 2010), only about 30% of high-performing leaders have significant advancement potential. Put another way, 70% of high-performing leaders do not qualify as high potential! What this suggests is that a track record of high performance is a necessary, but not sufficient, factor in determining advancement potential.
Steve Hrop, PhD, a former head of talent management for a major corporation and now an executive coach and succession-planning consultant, has catalogued a set of 15 predictive indicators that help identify those with the most advancement potential. Keep in mind that no individual will demonstrate all 15 indicators, but genuine high potentials will demonstrate more of them than individuals with less potential. The indicators are:
- A highly inquisitive nature
- A willingness to seek and utilize feedback
- Self-confidence without arrogance
- A focus on lifelong learning
- An ability to communicate directly without being disrespectful
- A willingness to hold oneself accountable and avoid excuses
- Business acumen (e.g., when presenting to senior management, links analysis and recommendations to a real business issue)
- An eagerness for opportunities to step outside of the comfort zone
- A proactive (versus reactive) approach to getting things done; a self-starter who takes action without waiting to be asked or told
- Resourcefulness in the face of obstacles or ambiguity
- A high “reserve capacity” (a good analogy is two college students studying for the same test; both achieve an A, but one required many more hours of study than the other; same result, but vastly different expenditures of time and energy).
- A cross-functional perspective and an avoidance of “silo” thinking
- An “outside-in” perspective (e.g., is aware of external “best practices” and industry trends versus thinking “inside the box” of his/her company)
- The capacity for effective time management and prioritization
- Is outcome focused and understands return on investment when considering where to allocate time, money, and resources
Once you identify your hi-pos, what are the best methods to develop them? While research shows that on-the-job learning is critical to development, the best learning experiences occur when leaders are operating outside their comfort zone, not the core activities they can perform in their sleep. Special projects involving complex, cross-functional problems where every member of the project team is outside of their comfort zone is an ideal vehicle for accelerated leadership development.
These types of projects are called Action Learning. The principles of Action Learning can be applied to individual leaders too, not just groups. For example, if you have a middle manager who exhibits most of the indicators listed above, assign a solo project on a topic relevant to your business (for example, a research project focusing on competitors, customers, or external trends that could impact your business), followed by a presentation to a group of senior executives. A project of this type can have a positive impact on several leadership competencies such as strategic thinking, business acumen, and communication.
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