How Companies Go Astray in Identifying High-Potential Talent

As followers of my blogs know, from time to time, I comment on articles that impact gender parity and discuss how the points covered can help advance female talent.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Companies Are Bad at Identifying High-Potential Employees by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman caught my eye.

The authors point out the disparity between those chosen for high potential (HIPO) programs, supposedly those in the top 5% of their organization, versus how they fare once they are in the programs. Using the proven 360-degree leadership measurement methodology for assessment, Zenger and Folkman found that over 42% of the 1,964 employees in the tracked programs rated below average in leadership effectiveness.

The article lays much of the blame for the disparity on the criteria used in choosing candidates, criteria which are not accurate indicators of leadership potential. Many of the points made by the authors are especially germane for selecting and developing HIPO women. Here are a few examples of the most frequently used criteria for HIPO programs and why they fall short:

  • “Technical and professional expertise” According to the authors “Deep knowledge and expertise go a long way in terms of getting a person noticed and valued… However, what got you invited to the party is not enough to keep you at the party.” This is a point we repeatedly emphasize to women in our programs. As women move into leadership roles, or seek to get on the leadership track, they must look beyond their current competencies, gain a greater understanding of the business as a whole and identify opportunities to positively impact that business.
  • “Consistently honoring commitments” As the authors point out, in workers or lower level managers, this is a truly admirable trait. However, as one moves up the organization, the virtue can become a millstone, often standing in the way of acquiring new and needed skills, such as delegation. We see it often with women, who can wrongly view delegation as abdication. It is important for them to let go of tasks, responsibilities and behaviors that worked well in previous roles, but become overwhelming and unmanageable at higher organizational levels.
  • “Fitting in to the culture of the organization” Zenger and Folkman found that “underperforming people in HIPO programs tended to emphasize a single trait valued by their organization.” Understanding organizational culture, and not just one piece of it, is critical to advancement. However, women are often at a disadvantage because research shows they do not receive—nor seek out—needed feedback to help them better grasp the corporate culture which they must navigate as leaders. As a result, they often miss the subtle cues for understanding and assessing that culture.

Additionally, the authors point to two key skills lacking in the underperforming HIPOs: strategic vision and the ability to motivate others. In our programs at WOMEN Unlimited, we are especially cognizant of helping women develop these leadership competencies.

In terms of strategic vision, we help participants look at how they can use forward thinking to impact their companies by meshing their competencies with corporate goals. For example, if increasing market share is a corporate goal, a woman can demonstrate strategic vision by developing recommendations and plans that support that goal.

Motivating others is an absolute must for a successful leader. Many of our corporate partners use the term “creating follower-ship,” which means developing an effective team and supporting their growth and development. As a result, that team becomes galvanized to help their leader drive outstanding results.

Over our 23 years of helping organizations grow their female talent, we at WOMEN Unlimited have unearthed another key component to effective leadership: life-long learning. Women must be flexible and reflective, developing relationships that grow and change as they do and continually assessing how to impact corporate success.

Dr. Rosina L. Racioppi
President & CEO
WOMEN, Unlimited, Inc.