What is potential? In the context potentially refers to the range of outcomes of any one situation. Whether any of these outcomes actually occur depends on the configuration of conditions and protective measures that coincide with the exposure. While the potential outcomes for many exposures can range from “nothing bad happens” to fatality, the probability of every potential outcome is not the same. Some exposures have higher potential than others for a life altering injury, fatality or catastrophic event, and if we do not recognise the difference in the likelihood of a serious outcome that occurs in different exposures our approach to managing safety will not be effective. When we consider the probability of different exposures to cause a life altering injury, fatality or catastrophe we are much better positioned to allocate appropriate resources and oversight.
Are You a High Potential?
Some employees are more talented than others. That‘s a fact of organisational life that few executives and HR managers would dispute. The more debatable point is how to treat the people who appear to have the highest potential. Opponents of special treatment argue that all employees are talented in some way and, therefore, all should receive equal opportunities for growth. Devoting a disproportionate amount of energy and resources to a select few, their thinking goes, might cause you to overlook the potential contributions of the many. But the disagreement doesn‘t stop there. Some executives say that a company‘s list of high potentials— and the process for creating it—should be a closely guarded secret. After all, why dampen motivation among the roughly 95% of employees who aren‘t on the list?
Should You Tell Her She‘s a High Potential?
Whether or not a company should make its list of high potentials transparent is an evergreen question. In our surveys of 45 company policies and in our work with firms during the past 15 to 20 years, we have found a growing trend toward transparency. The percentage of companies that inform high potentials of their status has risen from 70% about a decade ago to 85% today. Employers, we believe, are coming to see talent as a strategic resource that, like other types of capital, can move around. Executives are tired of exit interviews in which promising employees say, ―If I had known you had plans for me and were serious about following through, I would have stayed.‖
Nevertheless, making your list of high potentials transparent increases the pressure to do something with the people who are on it. If you tell someone you view her as a future leader, you need to back that up with tangible progress in her professional development. Otherwise, she may feel manipulated and even lose motivation. In one case, we witnessed a near riot at a company offsite, where a group of high potentials said they felt ―played‖—that their status was just a retention tactic, with no real plans to promote them. Either approach has risks: If you don‘t make the list public, you might lose your best performers; if you opt for transparency, you‘ll heighten the expectation of action.
For the past 15 to 20 years, we‘ve been studying programs for high-potential leaders. Most recently we surveyed 45 companies worldwide about how they identify and develop these people. We then interviewed HR executives at a dozen of those companies to gain insights about the experiences they provide for high potentials and about the criteria for getting and staying on the list. Then, guided by input from HR leaders, we met with and interviewed managers they‘d designated as rising stars.
Our research makes clear that high-potential talent lists exist, whether or not companies acknowledge them and whether the process for developing them is formal or informal. Of the companies we studied, 98% reported that they purposefully identify high potentials. Especially when resources are constrained, companies do place disproportionate attention on developing the people they think will lead their organisations into the future.
So you might be asking yourself, ―How do I get—and stay—on my company‘s high-potential list?‖ This article can help you begin to answer that question. Think of it as a letter to the millions of smart, competent, hardworking, trustworthy employees who are progressing through their careers with some degree of satisfaction but are still wondering how to get where they really want to go. We‘ll look at the specific qualities of managers whose firms identified them as having made the grade.