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Q&A3 Traits You Can Use to Identify High Potentials

High-potential talent is important. But you have to know who they are so you can develop them to perform when you need them.

co_1121_302Want to be able to identify employees who have advancement potential? Of course, you do. Well, they likely have one or more of three key traits, according to Steve Hrop. Hrop has been studying high-potential employees for years at Prudential, ADP and now as vice president of organizational development services for Caliper Corporation. He took the time to talk about his research and explain why pinpointing high-potential employees is good for companies and how you can do it, too.

 Alice Keefe: Why is it so important to devote development dollars and resources to study high-potential employees?

Steve Hrop: Identifying high potentials is important for all organizations, regardless of size. There may be differences in some of the approaches but the need to do so is critical these days. Performance is at higher levels than ever in terms of expectations because there’s competition and other factors driving that. What may have been good enough even a decade or two decades ago around performance for our leaders and people at all levels — you know the old saying about we raised the bar? That applies to organizations more than ever.

Keefe: What are your top indicators to identify high potential employees?

Hrop: The three that I see over and over again, in all types of organizations — whether they’re family owned firms or Fortune 500 type companies — are: resourcefulness, reserved capacity and what I like to call leader GPS.

Resourcefulness is overcoming obstacles. High-potential people figure out how to get unstuck when they run into a roadblock or a challenge. They find a way forward and get through those roadblocks; they’re proactive in doing so.

Reserved capacity is all about how you’re able to use time and apply energy to get things done, particularly more complex tasks. [High potentials] have huge demands on their time and energy. Reserved capacity gives them a huge edge to be able to perform in more senior roles. I see big differences between people who might be equally good performers in the short-term, but reserved capacity is critical as you go higher up in the organization.

Third is what I call leader GPS. Leader GPS is all about perspective. High potentials bring a perspective to their work. Three types. Thinking cross-functionally, so not just in a functional silo like HR, sales or IT, but across those boundaries. Another one is outside-in, meaning they’re very tuned into what’s going on outside their company or their organization in terms of the competition or industry trends that could impact their organization. Finally, [they have] a future-focus; they’re not just in the here and now trying to get a task done in a very tactical way. Yes, they do that well, but they also think down the road a bit and show what I call scenario thinking: “What if this happens down the road?” or, “We need to take that into account.”

Keefe: Is there a particular type of learning one can provide to promote these traits, or are they more innate — a part of a person’s background or make up, perhaps?

Hrop: It’s really a combination; if someone is lacking certain attributes or traits it would be very hard to instill some of these qualities. If there are some indicators of talent, even if it’s not fully formed, they may be people worth investing in. People who have more of these things to start out with obviously have an advantage.

What’s the best way to develop these things in an accelerated kind of way? It really is on-the-job experiences, most of all. You might say everyone has a day job so what’s so special about that? Well, I’m referring to things that get you out of your comfort zone and really push you to grow. Those on-the-job experiences need to be targeted and planned in an objective setting kind of way. Set an objective out of your comfort zone; if you get better at that, it’s going to strengthen you as a leader.

Do a lessons learned — I was in that situation, here’s what I did, here’s what I learned, here’s what worked, here’s what didn’t work — extract out the lessons learned. Finally, actively seek feedback. Feedback is almost like the glucose for this whole methodology to really work. If people do those simple but powerful things, I’ve seen them reach their full potential a lot quicker and go a lot farther. Training programs are supplemental, they’re helpful; reading articles or doing case studies are fine, but they’re the sideshow compared to on-the-job experiences of these types.

Keefe: How should learning leaders build and implement high-potential leadership strategies?

Hrop: They need to get a better balance between training and highly structured things where everyone goes to the same experience as opposed to the more tailored experience I just referred to. You could have 10 leaders in a company in a so-called leadership development program, and they’ll go through some things in common — the workshops, the training programs — and those are all helpful up to a point. But those targeted on-the-job experiences that are unique to each of those 10 individuals are going to be the most important part of the leadership development program.

Taking those core elements, and making sure they are part of your potential leadership strategies, it really is the key. But I would take it one step further … leaders of the organization … need to have a discussion, maybe with a list of high-potential criteria, and say, let’s look at this list. Let’s have a conversation together as a senior leadership team and really understand what these things mean and how they might apply to our organization. They should walk out of a meeting like that and have clarity and alignment on how we define high potentials in our organization.

Alice Keefe is a Chief Learning Officer editorial intern. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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