by Stephen Hrop, Ph.D., Vice President of Organizational Development Services at Caliper
In recent years, numerous articles and conferences have addressed the topic of identifying high potential (Hipo) leaders. For example, the “9-Box” model has become a nearly universal standard for identifying Hipos over the past 20 years because of its highly publicized usage at GE under CEO Jack Welch in the 1990s. However, that model provides absolutely no guidance on how to define “high potential".
In fact, many organizations have great difficulty differentiating genuine Hipos from those who have a track record of strong performance. As noted in a Harvard Business Review article (“How to Keep Your Top Talent”; May 2010), only about 30 percent of high performing leaders have significant advancement potential. Put another way, 70 percent of high performing leaders do not qualify as “high potential”! What this suggests is that a track record of high performance is a necessary, but not sufficient, factor in determining advancement potential. Nor does the 9-Box model shed any light on how to develop Hipos once they’re identified. The rest of this article will focus on these topics.
As a former head of talent management for a major corporation and now an executive coach and succession planning consultant, I’ve observed three factors that consistently differentiate Hipos from others who are strong performers, but not genuine Hipos. The first factor is resourcefulness. This is the ability to quickly overcome non-routine obstacles to the achievement of objectives. Hipos are able to find a way forward in these situations and rarely get “stuck”.
The second factor is what I call “Leader GPS”. Hipos are able to navigate a much larger landscape in their approach to work. They have an intense outside-in perspective (e.g., an awareness of external best practices and major trends in their industry) and think cross-functionally. In contrast, many top performers who are not Hipos are more internally focused and think mostly within their functional silo.
The third factor is being future-focused. Hipos think beyond their immediate circumstances by anticipating potential issues and opportunities much farther into the future than top performers who are not Hipos. To paraphrase the late Stephen Covey, they focus on both the urgent and the important.
While Hipos possess many of the same attributes as top performers who are not Hipos (e.g., communication skills and teamwork), the three factors outlined above can help you differentiate between genuine Hipos and top performers with limited advancement potential.
So once you’ve identified your organization’s Hipos, what’s the best way to develop them? There is substantial evidence that on-the-job (OTJ) experiences that get leaders outside of their comfort zone provide far superior development to other approaches such as workshops, training programs, and executive education programs. However, these OJT experiences need to be planned and the leader needs to internalize “lessons learned” by objectively reflecting on his/her actions and actively seeking feedback during and after these OJT experiences.
Some of the best methods for doing this are keeping a personal journal (ideally the Hipo will discuss key journal entries with an internal mentor or external coach), participating in a 360-degree feedback assessment every 1-2 years and identifying specific OTJ developmental experiences based on that feedback, and working with an executive coach who deeply understands these principles of individual “action learning”. These methods achieve proven results in an accelerated timeframe, so are the ideal vehicle for Hipo development.