The High Potentials

Ask any room full of corporate types “Please raise your hands if you think you are above average”, and I will bet you a venti coffee that more than half the hands will go up. I have also asked and have been asked this question myself. As soon as we raise hands, we also realize that we don’t really know what the average is and neither can we rationalize how most people raised their hands. The next thought is “I see that Joe raised his hand too and he is absolutely below average – so there are some people here who think too high of themselves”. Generally – the point is well made every time this exercise plays out – but the collective “we” still think pretty high of ourselves 🙂 . I think this is a good thing and even when misplaced , this element of confidence is what drives us all forward .

I don’t think anyone questions the idea that some amongst us have more potential than others – we just don’t agree easily by how much. We don’t (usually) hold a grudge against the ones who are unquestionably smarter than us – we generally admire them. However if we think they only have a marginal edge over us – there is a good chance that we don’t agree to treat them as a “high potential”.

At various points in my career across multiple companies , I have been tagged as a “Hi Po” . I have identified and groomed a bunch of HiPos myself . And I have listened to hundreds of colleagues tell me “there is no way that person is a HiPo” . And I have also fallen from grace as a HiPo from time to time – in cases where I agreed and in other cases where I disagreed with the assessment . My perspective has evolved on this topic along the way, and probably will change some more.

To begin with – I think organizations should rethink whether they have a logical way of identifying HiPos . This is one area where it’s a big mistake to lower the bar – even if that happens unconsciously. The obvious immediate risk is that you risk the business by giving critical role to someone not ready for it . Perhaps the greater risk is that other deserving candidates lose faith in the system and choose to put in less than their best , or worse – to jump ship !

Some critical questions could be raised on the people who make the decision and their process.

1. Are the people making the HiPo determination qualified to do so ? How were they selected ? Are they in tune with the market and what the future needs ?

2. How do they validate their decision ? Is the process audited from time to time and changes made ? Has bias crept in ? What happens when it is clear that a mistake has been made ? Is there an appeals process ?

3. Are candidates chosen because their peer group is pretty weak ? How do we know if they truly have high potential compared to the market ?

Sometimes it’s made pretty public on who are the high potentials in the team – and at other times it’s kept somewhat of a secret. Either way , over a period of time – everyone will come to know who these people are by looking at what assignments and promotions they get . In a transparent system – there is a good chance that others strive hard to be a HiPo . In an opaque system – there will just be a lot of frustration and corporate gossip. I have often felt that the reasons for lower transparency are in a large part because managers don’t want to deal with a large number of employees asking them why they were overlooked .

What if you think you truly have higher potential than the organization credits you with ? Everyone goes through this a few times in their career. Most of the time we attribute it to bad luck and try again and usually things even out for us over time. However , occasionally there is the case where you think you are repeatedly overlooked and less qualified people keep moving ahead of the pack.

Most of the time there is no sinister motive from managers and it is just a game of chance that didn’t do you any favors this time. But the true test of whether your organization is undervaluing you is to test yourself in open market.

A classic case in my industry is people who get stuck at a senior manager or an associate partner level and can’t seem to make it to partner level . They also see some others fly through the ranks and make partner at a relatively young age. It’s a tough pill to swallow. I think the partnership appointment process is a fair process in all the firms I know. I also know that a small percentage of people end up not getting through it for no fault of theirs. For such folks – my advice has always been “Go apply at another firm and see if they will hire you as a partner”. If you are a partner at one firm , there is a good chance you can make a lateral shift as partner elsewhere . But it’s an order of magnitude harder to do that if you are not yet at partner level . But it does happen from time to time – and unless you try , you won’t know if you were truly overlooked where you are or if you still have work to do . And the “still have work to do” might not be as big as you might think – usually it’s something as simple as signing up for a public speaking class. Or it might need you to build a better network – which is usually easier where you already work , compared to trying it in a new employer.

There is also the part of being more self aware. We need to realize that some people are smarter than us and deserve more success than we do. What we should not accept is any systemic bias – like “it’s because I am a woman or Indian or because I chose to raise a family ” . Those need to be fought !

This was all about what could go wrong in choosing or being chosen as a HiPo . But what about the great case of being chosen as a HiPo ?

I can say with no hesitation that being selected is generally the easier part. The really hard part is to continue to stay as a HiPo and realize that potential ! It takes very little effort to derail

To begin with, you are in a hard spot – knowing your management rooting for you and having high expectations , while some of your overlooked peers may play passive aggressive with you and team.

Staying grounded and humble is the best strategy . You also need to develop thicker skin – it can get lonely for a little bit while you find your feet . Your tone of communication will be put to test – it’s very easy to be interpreted by others as condescending or patronizing . And you have to resist the temptation of staying YES to everything – you are a HiPo , not a superhero!

But the most important – and perhaps the most gratifying part – is to help others in their journey to be HiPos . As you get bigger roles that are a stretch – your success depends on building a motivating your team. The ones that blossom as HiPos are typically those that quickly realized they need more HiPos around them to hit it out of the park . And you need to be ver comfortable with the chance that one of your protégés might end up as your senior somewhere along the way .

(Cross-posted @ Vijay's thoughts on all things big and small)

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General Manager of AI,Analytics,IOT and Watson Health for North America in IBM GBS . Proud Alum of University of Kerala . Geek, Engineer , Blogger and dog lover . Previously senior executive at SAP and MongoDB.

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