September 28, 2023

TPL Insights #190 – Are Your High Potential Employees Falling Through the Cracks?

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with italicized content from Julia Lee Cunningham, Laura Sonday, and Sue Ashford’s Harvard Business Review article published on September 5, 2022

Studies have shown that high potential employees often contribute 5 – 15X more to the bottom line than an average employee. Just one high potential employee can be the catalyst that takes an organization of 10,000 employees from worst to first. In today’s blog, we explore the conundrum around identifying and developing high potential employees and why it could make all the difference in your organization.

Two cases in point: In 1988 and 1989, I promoted two individuals to senior level positions while running 516 convenience stores for NCS, the third largest C-Store operator in the world at the time. One went on to become an extraordinarily effective SVP of Stores, and the other became the most effective and successful division president in the company’s 36-year history. These two individuals made the company tens of millions of incremental profit dollars. Here’s the punch line: Both people had been and would have continued to be overlooked for three reasons:

They didn’t fit the NCS “corporate mold.” They were not self-promoters, and there was no mechanism that enabled them to self-select into a leadership development plan. I often ask my colleagues and clients: How do you ensure that you don’t overlook the best talent in your organization? Most don’t have a clear answer. There is no psychometric assessment that predicts potential. There is no silver bullet. The answer starts with eliminating limiting beliefs regarding pedigrees and overly restrictive profiles, in addition to making it much easier for employees to identify as potential leaders and begin the journey.

According to Cunningham, Sonday and Ashford, identifying as a potential leader is a critical first step on the path towards becoming one. And yet, many people are uncomfortable identifying as leaders. What drives this reluctance? When it comes to leading, self-identity matters. Research has shown that seeing one’s self as a leader is an important first step on the path toward becoming one — and reluctance to identify as a leader can keep capable people from taking on leadership responsibilities. So, why are people so often uncomfortable with thinking of themselves as leaders?

While there are no doubt many factors at play, prior research has shown that reputational concerns can play a major role in deterring people from proactively pursuing their goals at work. As such, they were interested in whether perceived risk to people’s reputations could similarly impact their sense of identity as leaders, and in turn make them less likely to lead. To explore this question, they conducted a series of studies with more than 1,700 participants including full-time employees, MBA students, and U.S. Airforce cadets, and we consistently found that the more people worried about the reputational risks of being a leader, the less likely they were to identify as one. Specifically, they identified three common reputational fears that hold people back from seeing themselves as leaders:

Fear of seeming domineering

Many of the participants in the study expressed concern about being seen as bossy, autocratic, or domineering if they were to take on a leadership role. As one interviewee put it, “I wouldn’t want to seem pushy, or that I take advantage of weak [people]. I wouldn’t want to seem cold.” Interestingly, while much has been written on the use of pejorative words like “bossy” to describe female leaders, we found that in our studies, men and women were both afraid of coming across in this manner.

Fear of seeming different

The second common concern was that acting as a leader would result in being singled out and receiving too much attention for being different from others — even if that attention was positive. One participant explained, “I don’t want to be looked up to or idolized. I am comfortable leading, but at the same time I want to be on the same level as everyone else.” Many people worry that if they become leaders, they will have to sacrifice their sense of belonging within the group.

Fear of seeming unqualified

Regardless of whether they saw themselves as qualified, many of their participants said that they were afraid that others would view them as unfit for leadership. As one shared, “I know people often associate men with leadership roles, so that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I worry that if I try to pursue leadership in my field, people will not take me seriously.”

To be sure, there are very real experiences that often inform these fears, especially for underrepresented groups such as women and people of color. But whether these fears are justified or not, it’s important to understand their impact on how we view ourselves. And across the studies, they found that people who reported higher levels of fear around these reputational risks were less likely to see themselves as leaders. As a result, they were less likely to act as leaders, and therefore less likely to be seen as leaders by their supervisors.

Managers can also take steps to explicitly address employees’ reputational concerns. It is understandable that people wouldn’t want to align themselves with an identity that’s stereotypically associated with being domineering, different, or unqualified. Organizations must demonstrate through both words and actions that anyone can be a leader, and that taking on leadership roles will be viewed positively.

Cunningham, Sonday and Ashford’s research is certainly noteworthy. It has also been my experience that exposing new hires to leadership development opportunities early on in their careers can have an enormous impact on an organization’s ability to “grow its own” and develop deep bench strength. Early in my tenure as a retail division head, we designed a leadership development program, and every new hire had the opportunity to opt-in. I have seen similar techniques work for several of the peak performing organizations we’ve studied. The key is to expose new hires to leadership opportunities from the beginning. In doing so, you can:

  1. Communicate to your high potential employees at all levels that you care about them as people, as professionals, as emerging leaders. Communicate that you are willing to invest in them.
  2. Teach your high potential employees the principles of effective career advancement starting with the realization that their career development is their responsibility. Once your up-and-comers understand what it takes to climb the corporate ladder, the behavior you value most will manifest in program participants, and, if nurtured, will permeate your organization.
  3. Instill in your leaders a clear understanding of how to develop character, emotional intelligence, and attitudes of success. Teach the tenants of servant leadership, personal growth, goal setting, conflict resolution, and etiquette.
  4. Teach your emerging leaders the little understood principles (not taught in mainstream business schools) practiced in organizations that significantly outperform their competition. Understand why only 3% of organizations realize their full potential.
  5. Teach your leaders to practice the principles of effective leadership communications. Effective leadership is not just about personal presence, degrees, titles, charisma, or even intelligence. Your leaders will practice a reliable, proven methodology that will allow them to engage their stakeholders in a powerful way to drive change, generate revenue, persuade constituent groups, and lead in the most impactful way imaginable.

There is no one right way to identify, engage, and develop high potential employees. You can hire a great human capital consultant to assist you in designing a program that’s right for you. The one constant is the importance of having such a program. Without it, you’re destined to have high potential talent fall through the cracks, costing your organization immeasurable momentum and profitability. I sincerely hope this piece is helpful.

Warmest Regards,

Rob