Set up to fail? Nurturing high potentials


Many organizations reward high performing individuals with promotion to a leadership position. This is often an employee's first opportunity to show they can inspire others, mobilize teams and effect change within a matrixed environment.

Often the assumption is made that someone who is a stellar performer, who is hard-driving, exceeds expectations or possesses strong critical reasoning skills is ready for the next phase of their career. These stars are usually placed on a 'high potential' list.

Each organization has a different approach to this sacred list. Some are open about it and inform employees who have made the grade. This creates an atmosphere of competition and an opportunity for employees to consider their next steps, elevating their motivation and level of engagement.

Other organizations keep the list secret, not wanting to create false hopes or potentially set unrealistic expectations regarding promotion. But this approach risks raising the expectations of those who consistently receive strong evaluations and then expect to be rewarded through career advancement.

I often ask organizations to spell out their definition of a 'high potential' and the criteria they use to make this evaluation. The most common response is "the ability of an individual to take on larger scope with greater complexity".

Okay, so what does that mean? Can that be behaviorally defined? It most certainly should be - although it rarely is. There seems to be a direct correlation between 'exceeds expectations' to an assumption that an employee can take on more. What exactly do we mean by 'more'?

So here is the irony. A larger role no doubt means 'more' – and up until now, getting stuff done has been the employee's claim to fame. But moving up is less about tactical achievements and more about influence and impact. A select few intuitively get it. But most don't understand that what is now expected of them is very different to any role they have held previously.

Yet can we blame them for the misconception? Throughout their careers, they have largely been rewarded for their individual contributions and suddenly this platform for achievement is no longer relevant in the same way.

At this juncture it is not unusual for an employee to begin to falter. Many are overwhelmed when they discover that their colleagues don't just agree to do things because they said so. They discover that influencing others and a host of complex interpersonal skills are now a critical part of their role and that their peers are subject matter experts with competing needs and priorities. And if they are unable to win the buy-in they need, frustration and lack of confidence can quickly build.

As the employee falters, organizations typically respond with measures such as external training, sponsorship programs, and executive coaching. And while these tactics may prove be beneficial for some, what happens in the scenario where the successful employee should never have been promoted in the first place - at least not at this point in their career?

When the realization dawns that no amount of investment in an individual is going to bring about the necessary change - or certainly not in time frame required by the organization - the blame game begins. The employee is deemed to have failed: "they just don't get it", "they are too tactical", "they're out of their league", "they are affecting the enterprise's reputational integrity", and worst of all … "they have no leadership skills."

Of course, it is the organization that has failed the employee and the organization that bears much of the responsibility for this failure. But the individual concerned is now stuck. Their credibility becomes a serious issue and they lose the respect of their peers - a tremendous disappointment for an employee who was once considered a high flyer.

And it isn't just the individual employee who suffers. Whether they leave voluntarily or not, the message both to the employee and the organization at large is not a positive one. Morale issues amongst the team ensue and the successor has an even steeper hill to climb.

Let's step back. Organizations owe employees the platform for success. So the organization ought to define what skill set a 'high potential' employee really requires in order to progress. Once defined, a formal assessment process should be undertaken to determine whether the individual possesses some or all of these skills or has the potential to acquire them.

The assessment profile can create awareness of the skills the employee requires to step up as well as provide a detailed development plan that sets them up for success, not failure. It is a plan that both the employee and the organization can implement - a vastly different approach than previously outlined.

That's why an executive assessment is such a crucial diagnostic and that's why then - and only then - should individuals be considered for promotion.

Coaching can also help position an employee for continued success. But not every capable person is coachable. While coaching can modify and add additional skill sets, it cannot change one's DNA. Some people simply don't have the wiring for 'big picture' thinking and no amount of coaching or external training can change this.

Likewise, on-boarding coaching for employees assuming a more complex role can accelerate the learning curve, help build key alliances, achieve early wins and most importantly, build respect and credibility.

About The Author

Cindy Wahler
Cindy Wahler

A Psychologist and expert in human behaviour, Dr. Cindy Wahler has extensive and broad based experience in positioning organizations for success, within both the private and public sectors.