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A Conversation with Senior HR Leaders About Leadership Potential

by Alison Tubay on

Every few months, we invite senior HR and Talent leaders to join us for small roundtable discussions focused on a hot topic in HR. Last month, 11 leaders from a variety of industries joined us in Milwaukee to share the conversations each are having in their organization around leadership potential.

The ensuing discussion proved that issues of identifying and unlocking potential are not unique to any one organization or industry. It also highlighted the key role that HR plays in facilitating these important internal conversations – especially when it comes to achieving diversity and inclusion goals.

To set the stage for the conversation, we introduced Vantage’s model of potential, which includes 4 critical factors: Thinking Agility, Curiosity, Drive, and Leads with Purpose. We then went around the room to better understand each individual’s role and see how aligned our definition of potential was with their own interpretation and use of potential in the workplace.

Over the next 2 hours, our conversation revolved around 3 main issues that emerged in regard to measuring and adopting potential in the leaders’ respective organizations: how experienced the company was with the use/idea of potential; getting leaders to grasp and utilize a consistent idea of potential, distinguished from performance; and identifying potential in underrepresented groups.

THE MATURITY CONTINUUM​

To identify the current state of talent identification in their organizations, we introduced a model called the Maturity Continuum to the group, and asked them to discuss where they felt their company was in regard to the 4 stages: 

Though all leaders present come from organizations of different sizes and ages, it was interesting to hear that each felt most aligned with a maturity level of 3 or under, and several felt they’d been around the continuum a few times.

Here are some tactics the HR leaders suggested to develop the sophistication of potential in the workplace:

  • Put high potential programs in place with consistent schedules, holding participants accountable for their development, and sharing results back with the broader organization to continually gain buy-in for the process
  • Ensure individuals identified as high potential are personally motivated to lead at higher levels
  • Align people’s career interests with growth opportunities (e.g., outside their normal responsibilities)
  • Invest in training that is specific to the organization’s leadership challenges

A clear outcome of our conversation was that companies’ strategies, business priorities, and talent pool are always changing. As such, having a consistent definition and process for utilizing concepts, such as potential, can become challenging.

The key to any major change is allowing enough time to pass for the change to work itself through to a place of relative acceptance and stability—as one leader shared, you can likely see results in your first year of adopting a new method of measuring potential, but it could take as long as 5 years to fully embed and operationalize those changes.

GETTING LEADERS TO GRASP AND ACCELERATE POTENTIAL ​

Because potential is viewed differently depending on the person and organization, finding a clear way to identify –  and ultimately develop – high potential leaders is an ongoing challenge.

A main topic of conversation for us was finding a way for leaders across the organization to understand and adopt a single way of thinking about potential, such that employees could be compared in an “apples to apples” way when discussing the talent pool; specifically, ensuring that potential remains separate from performance was a common struggle for leaders in our group. 

One perspective we heard was that other leaders in the organization become offended when they are told their people are not high potential, even though they are highly valued performers. Another leader shared that there is confusion between what distinguishes potential from promotability.

Here are some tactics leaders offered to enhance the concept of potential and adoption of it in the workplace:

  • Integrate a consistent message across the business as it pertains to measuring and using potential to make promotional/succession decisions
  • Define leadership competency criteria and make them a fundamental expectation for potential (i.e., cannot be considered as having upward potential without having these factors)
  • Clearly explain the differences between high performers and high potentials, and the importance of having both in an organization; share the benefits of what someone with high performance but lower potential can provide to the broader organization
  • Move away from the traditional 9-box during talent reviews to separate the concepts of performance and potential, as together it may leave too much gray area and room for ambiguous answers

Determining a person’s level of potential can introduce quite a bit of subjective information, leading to biased opinions and decisions (e.g., introverted leaders can have just as much potential as extroverted leaders, but it may not show up as obviously; leaders are willing to overlook different less-than-ideal qualities when providing ratings). As such, having a consistent message across all areas of the business becomes even more important; it will ensure that ratings and ultimately, succession plans will keep all individuals on an even playing field.

DIVERSITY, INCLUSION & POTENTIAL: IDENTIFYING POTENTIAL IN UNDER-REPRESENTED GROUPS​

Towards the end of our conversation, one leader asked the group what they are doing differently to look at under-represented groups in their organizations during decision-making. Another leader shared that they had been incorporating a representation percentage goal a few years prior but received pushback from stakeholders and discontinued its use (e.g., there was concern that decisions could be viewed as forced or not genuine because of the goal). Ultimately, they began losing women and people of color because it was perceived that by eliminating the representation goal, the under-represented were not wanted. This leader shared that they are struggling to create a program for diverse individuals because they want to be careful not to seem like they are trying to “fix” a particular group of people. Another leader shared that the biggest challenge she faces with this issue is giving diverse individuals opportunities to showcase their talent and the benefit of a sponsor without feeling targeted.

Our leaders shared best practices they use to make sure their organization’s conversations around potential are aligned with their Diversity & Inclusion goals:

  • Have separate talent review conversations for women and other diverse groups (i.e., to ensure they are being considered equally for emerging opportunities)
  • Be very intentional—one talent review for just women, one for diversity
  • Have an entire succession planning conversation just for females and diverse populations
  • Give women and diverse individuals sponsors and put them on specific tracks for development

Being intentional when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and potential is key, and HR plays an important role in keeping this top-of-mind during any talent review. A thoughtful, consistent, and inclusive process for talent reviews will not only lead to enhanced loyalty to and faith in the company and its leaders, but it will also ensure the company’s talent pool is being used to the best of its ability, as there are likely employees with great potential that have not had sufficient exposure to be noticed.

What’s the conversation around potential in your organization? Let us know in the comments. Send us a note if you’d be interested in learning more about our roundtables. 

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