In the search for high potentials, what matters most?

Evidence shows that those who are most engaged have better scores on a wide range of metrics than those who are disengaged, including: productivity, customer care and time off due to ill health. Even if an employee is identified as having ‘high potential’, if he/she is disengaged they will self-evidently not be able to deliver their true potential. So what should talent spotters be looking for in seeking their organisation’s next senior leaders?

A quick bit of research via google on “high potentials check list” was revealing. There were over 9 million results; I didn’t look at many, but of those I did, all of them focused on things like:

  • 47545574 - joe tells paul yes you can. paul is very surprised but joe is his mentor

    they have the desire and ability to learn;

  • they are respected and trusted by staff of all levels in the organisation;
  • they consistently high levels of technical/functional competence;
  • they consistently delivers beyond expectations;
  • they take action;
  • they have courage;
  • they are open to feedback and constructive criticism;
  • they think strategically;
  • they focus on customers’ needs.

This is just a small selection of checklist items, and clearly all of these are good things to be looking for in those who aspire to a senior position. But of themselves, they’re not enough; a person who demonstrates all of those attributes and more will fail to be successful if they aren’t fully and actively engaged in their work and with their organisation’s vision, values and priorities.

According to Engage For Success’ research, published in 2012, only about a third of UK employees are actively engaged, with two thirds saying they had more to offer. At the same time, UK productivity was 20% lower than in the other G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States). So we know that higher engagement is essential, both to organisations and to the economy as a whole.

Research conducted by Harvard Business Review revealed that 98% of companies surveyed reported that they purposefully identify high potentials; the same research also showed that senior leadership teams spent less than 10% of their time developing high potential leaders. What is the effect of such a disconnection between intention and action?

The great risk is that letting someone know they are on the high potential list and then doing little or nothing to provide the opportunities for realising that high potential is a sure fire way to push some of your best people towards other opportunities elsewhere.

Alongside this, consider the effect on the other 95% or so of employees, who aren’t likely ever to get onto the high potential list. What will you do to ensure that they are given the opportunity to fulfil their full potential, even if that won’t involve reaching senior leadership roles?

Without doubt, there are many factors necessary for any employee to fulfil their potential. Also without doubt, making sure everything is in place for them to be fully engaged isn’t a nice-to-have add-on; it’s a hard, measurable and business-critical essential.

Image: Copyright: tintin75 Used with permission.

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