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How to identify and manage high potentials

'High potential' is no guarantee of success. Here's how to manage your talent strategies.

We are told there is a ‘war for talent’ and successful companies must find and hire the best people. There is no question that talented people can improve organisational performance. But the consequence is that many forget that ability and high potential are dependent on the job, the company and the nature of the work.

Some believe high potential automatically engenders high performance. Select and hire the best, and they’ll do the rest. The very idea seems to imply that selecting high-performing or high-potential people is guaranteed to improve productivity. Find the bright, the talented, the ambitious and watch them work their way to the top, transforming colleagues and the company around them.

However, one must remember high potential is not a guarantee, nor is it ubiquitous to all achievement or advancement. High potential means a high probability of accomplishing a specified task or set of objectives. One can have a high potential to improve sales, a low potential to inspire colleagues or improve group performance, a high potential of meeting deliverables but a low potential to meet them within timeframes or budgetary targets. Labelling a person or a team simply ‘high potential’ is meaningless without a qualifier. Ask the question: potential to do what?

Identifying high potentials

How do you find high potentials? Define potential to do what before searching for job candidates. A strategy for finding and developing high potentials cannot be successful without working backwards: elaborate the key characteristics of a high-potential person.

What should they accomplish and how? Selection processes will be far more successful through simple reverse engineering. First consider:

  • What type of performance is desirable
  • Who is performing well now
  • How a top performer gets results
  • When are realistic timeframes for turning potential into performance
  • Why certain types of performance are more or less important

In other words, high-potential roles as well as articulated pathways need to be defined and described before recruiting high potential.

Instead of starting with selection, work backwards and design criteria by analysing the key components and predictors of a real high-potential career. Decide the objectives of the position in the short and the long term before selecting prospective high potentials.

Take the following extracts from recent job advertisements. The first is vague enough to be meaningless: is there any job where these characteristics would be undesirable? The second example is a clear description of the job and its requirements.

  • Poor example: Public Policy Assistant. ‘You will be a strong communicator with excellent analytical skills and the ability to build relationships and get things done under pressure and to tight deadlines.’
  • Good example: MI5 Mandarin Chinese Interpreter. ‘Naturally you will need strong Mandarin Chinese language skills that enable you, for example, to comfortably read newspaper articles and understand news broadcasts in Mandarin Chinese. You can assess your skills using the language tests on our website. You can translate from Mandarin Chinese into clear, well-drafted and balanced reports in English, drawing out the relevant points from sometimes lengthy pieces of material.’

It is profitable to clearly define and describe exactly what a high-potential career looks like. A successful selection process requires clear definition of what a prospective hire can do and learn to do in the job. Rethink the ordering of selection, development and retention.

Reverse engineer the selection process

First, identify career development pathways and processes. To what degree is there mobility in the company for prospective employees to move laterally and vertically? What tools and resources are there in the organisation, what opportunities are available? Are the development pathways clear, formal, articulated and realistic?

If there are opportunities, the emphasis during selection may be to hire people with the potential to move into leadership positions. The profile of someone ready to hit the ground running in an entry- or graduate-level position may be very different from someone who has high potential to move into a very senior leadership or technical role. Identify the skills, knowledge and characteristics people need when starting the job and which abilities can be developed ‘in-house’. Often there are great competitive advantages to hiring potential and developing raw talent.

Second, define the key characteristics of high-potential retention along with what people can do (ability), what they are willing to do (values) and what they want to do (motivation). Identify why people leave the organisation, and differentiate between high performers and lower performers who leave. Decide the key factors in retention and the attributes of people who should stay as well as who should go. Consider, for example, a policy that results in the termination of bullies in the workplace.

Ideally, a successful policy will increase the turnover rate among groups with a certain behaviour such as bullying, but the consequences may also be lower turnover rates among other groups. The question of retention and turnover is not simply one of numbers but of who is leaving and why. Values are critical. Organisational and individual values should be congruent: hiring people with very different values, or shifting organisational values, can lead to retention problems. Clearly articulate organisational values, be consistent and ensure actions reflect those values.

There is no arbitrary number to define a healthy turnover rate. But it is possible to ask whether cultural, policy or managerial factors are driving people away unnecessarily. Are those high potentials leaving in droves for greener pastures, and if so, what can be done to change it? This is often a question of values: what are the key organisational values? Maintaining those values, and recruiting high potentials who share them will be critical in retention.

Third, design a selection process. Poor decisions are often a function of ill informed decision-making. When those in charge do not have clear selection criteria they are more likely to rely on hunches, unconscious biases and personal preference. Defining high potential must come after a thorough analysis of what type of high potential is required.

Specify and describe the necessary values, personality traits and abilities. What does a person actually need, and what can a clever and industrious person pick up on the job? When looking for those who might go far, think of how their progression would fit into the current organisation.

If there is no formal development structure, and promotions are based on whoever is the highest performer with little support or direction, then you may be looking for different people from those who have high potential to succeed with training, mentoring, guidance and oversight.

It’s about choosing who is needed right now, along with who will be needed in one, five or 20 years. Selection for people likely to succeed in a certain role is very different than for those who are going be promoted rapidly. Tomorrow’s leaders, today’s technicians and the creative minds a decade from now all have different attributes.

Tools for development, retention and selection

After reverse engineering the selection process, there are two key tools to be used throughout development, retention and selection:

A) Valid, reliable predictors of success (and potential)

After clarifying development pathways, identify factors important to retaining the right people with a list of competencies and desirable characteristics. These can be positive (select ‘in’ factors) and negative (select ‘out’ factors). Making an offhand list is not sufficient; to be good predictors of potential, these must also be proven to be important for success or performance. This has the dual advantage of getting the right people for the right position, and falling on the right side of employment law and ethical behaviour. The concept of validity is actually quite simple in this sense: get the right people into the right position using the right criteria.

B) Rigorous and accurate measures of those predictors

Interviews and references are among the least reliable predictors of performance, but they are among the most widely relied upon. More sophisticated measures of intelligence, personality, skills and other desirable attributes are better at predicting potential behaviour and achievement.

Interviews and references are among the least reliable predictors of performance, but they are widely relied upon. More sophisticated assessment techniques are, of course, more expensive and require greater expertise. The question of expense highlights two other important questions: what are the prospective rewards in productivity, attainment and corporate culture when high potentials are accurately spotted? And what are the costs and consequences of getting it wrong?

These processes and tools are complementary. Improving tools to collect data regarding performance, potential and the associated traits improves decision making about selection, development, retention and promotion. High-potential identification programmes will provide information about the make-up of high potentials in that organisation. Consequently, this information will further improve the predictors and assessment that can be used.

Adrian Furnham and Ian MacRae are co-authors of High Potential: How to Spot, Manage and Develop Talented People at Work. Furnham is professor of psychology at University College London and has written more than 1,000 scientific papers and 70 books. MacRae has been working as an organisational psychology consultant for nearly a decade.