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A focus on high potentials 'can destroy' culture

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Spending too much on high potentials at the expense of everyone else is a dangerous game

Over-investment in high potential programmes risks becoming “an investment in inequality”, according to a leading HR academic.

Patrick Wright, Thomas C Vandiver bicentennial chair and founder and faculty director of the Center for Executive Succession in the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina, who is ranked 10th on the HR Most Influential Thinkers list, was speaking to HR magazine at the Dublin City University Leadership and Talent Institute’s Leadership for a Sustainable World Conference.

Wright said that while investing in future organisational capability is important, it shouldn’t come at the expense of current capability, and that CHROs should re-examine their training budgets.

“There is a finite budget, and the question is how do you allocate resources when they are somewhat limited?” he said. “The pendulum has been swinging towards [a focus] on the future of the business and the C-suite, and doing all we can to develop that talent pool. Well, that money comes from somewhere. How do we enable learning among the rest of our people?”

He added: “What you are seeing in organisations is an investment in inequality, and I worry that will be detrimental to building a strong culture. You are not investing in the frontline employees who deliver to customers, or not investing nearly as much. Focusing so much on future organisational capability can threaten current organisational capability. More money focused on an elite group and less on the whole organisation can destroy culture.”

Wright advised HR directors to think about how they are allocating their training budgets, and figure out what is really necessary. “Are we overinvesting in things that are probably unnecessary?” he asked, citing hiring external coaches for high potentials as potentially unnecessary. “Are we really critical about what the learning experiences are that will get us the biggest bang for our buck with high potentials, versus thinking we need to do it because it sounds good and these people expect it?” he added.

He also said that if HR leaders are “really serious about building organisational capability”, they should fight for higher training budgets. “HR might be being asked to cut costs, but key for me is investing wisely enough so that you are getting return for [your investment]. It’s not how much does it cost us – it’s the value that we get from it,” he said.