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How Not to Develop High-Potentials

At the 2009 TED Conference, Barry Schwartz remarked on the disconnect between brilliance and wisdom.  “The good news is you don’t need to be brilliant to be wise.  The bad news is that without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough.  It’s as likely to get you and other people into trouble as anything else.”  The ability to improvise in ambiguous situations and use sound judgment are skills to be developed over time.  While every employee stands to benefit from gaining practical wisdom, it is most critical for employees you hope will advance in an organization.

Here are four common pitfalls for developing high-potential employees:

1. Failing to communicate

There are conflicting philosophies on whether companies should tell high-potentials about their plans.  Some organizations attempt to walk the tightrope by not telling high-potentials, but treating them as if they are.  The idea is to keep them hungry and striving, but this can backfire with employees who have high expectations and lots of alternatives.  According to Harvard Business Review, the trend is moving toward greater transparency.  “Executives are tired of exit interviews in which promising employees say, ‘If I had known you had plans and were serious about following through, I would have stayed’.”

2. Advancing talent too quickly

Success at one level doesn’t always indicate success at the next level.  Evaluate how effectively the employee handles lower-level challenges and give enough leeway for the employee to succeed or fail on his/her own.  Offering too much direct assistance and too few challenges is, in effect, cutting the cocoon open before the butterfly has a chance to mature and break out on its own.  Coaching is one proven and effective way to help the employee develop the skills necessary for the next level.

3. Adhering too rigidly to the plan

Organizations are becoming flatter, so be flexible and remember there are other directions to move your talent besides upward.  This is especially important as the workforce shifts from Baby Boomers to Gen X and Gen Y.  The high-potential label is a familiar element for the Boomer-driven workforce, but it may not resonate as well with younger workers who tend to value work that is engaging and new.  Sometimes a lateral move can offer greater value to both the employee and the organization.

4. Assuming your talent is engaged

HBR offers some sobering statistics on engagement from high-potentials.  1 in 3 admits to not putting full effort into the job.  1 in 4 intends to leave within a year.  1 in 5 sees his/her personal aspirations as greatly different from what the organization has planned.  Monitor employee morale and look for ways to re-energize talent with stretch assignments and developmental opportunities.

CMA offers talent development services including Assessment, Coaching, and our Leadership Advantage program for companies operating both domestically and internationally.  For more information, contact Dan Bean or Joe Hoffman, or visit us on the web at