Are You a High Potential?

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High Potential?
Leaders at your company are constantly wondering that about you, whether they own up to it or not. Here’s how to get them to answer yes. by Douglas A. Ready, Jay A. Conger, and Linda A. Hill

Are You a

HBR.ORG

Douglas A. Ready (dready @icedr.org) is a visiting professor of organizational behavior at London Business School and the founder and president of ICEDR, a global talentmanagement research center in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Jay A. Conger is the Henry R. Kravis Research Professor in Leadership Studies at Claremont McKenna College and a visiting professor of organizational behavior at London Business School.

Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.

S

ome employees are more talented than others. That’s a fact of organizational 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? For the past 15 to 20 years, we’ve been studying programs for highpotential 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 highpotential 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 organizations into the future.

ILLUSTRATION: DANIEL STOLLEH

June 2010 Harvard Business Review 79

ARE YOU A HIGH POTENTIAL?

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.

The Anatomy of a High Potential
Let’s begin with our definition of a high-potential employee. Your company may have a different definition or might not even officially distinguish high potentials from other employees. However, our research has shown that companies tend to think of the top 3% to 5% of their talent in these terms: “High potentials consistently and significantly outperform their peer groups in a variety of settings and circumstances. While achieving these superior levels of performance, they exhibit behaviors that reflect their companies’ culture and values in an exemplary manner. Moreover, they show a strong capacity to grow and succeed throughout their careers within an organization—more quickly and effectively than their peer groups do.” That's the basic anatomy of a high potential. Gaining membership in this elite group starts with three essential elements. Deliver...
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