We recently invited twelve HR leaders from a variety of industries to come to our offices for a spirited group round table. The topic? Conversations they are having in their organizations around leadership potential. We found that the challenges of identifying and unlocking potential are not unique to any one organization or industry, and HR plays a key role in facilitating these important internal conversations – especially when it comes to achieving diversity and inclusion goals.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Potential

To kick off our conversation, we asked each HR leader to describe how his or her organization defined and identified leadership potential. While there was a fair degree of alignment around what its indicators are, many heads nodded when someone mentioned that labeling a person with “potential” still felt subjective and a bit…murky.

Some organizations have succinct definitions – such as “ACE”, the combination of Aspiration, Capability, and Engagement – backed by specific behaviors to guide the assessment of potential. Others have done away with the word “potential” entirely, focusing instead on leadership “readiness.” Overall, our leaders agreed that having a well-defined leadership model with clear competencies is crucial for assessing talent.

Regardless of the definition you use, a variety of personal traits and motivational factors influence whether someone is perceived to be capable of expanded leadership responsibility. None will seem particularly surprising; the group mentioned things like intellectual agility, willingness to learn, humility, curiosity, team commitment, grit, and pursuit of excellence.  Underlying this was the sense that someone needs to be a “good person” in order to be considered for bigger roles.  What it means to be a “good person” is a confluence of EQ, self-awareness, humility and other aspects that need to be defined and linked to behaviors.

The group cautioned us that these elements do, of course, need to be tied tightly to good leadership. For instance, curiosity by itself doesn’t necessarily indicate someone will be suited to a larger role. Alternatively, an overwhelming drive to achieve can come at the expense of effective relationship management.

Of course, no conversation on potential can be truly productive unless you first answer the question “Potential for what?It is nearly impossible to divorce the concept of potential from the organizational problem you are trying to solve.

“The Measurement Challenge is Huge”

Knowing the answer to the “for what” question may steer towards a more objective assessment of potential by clarifying what need you’re addressing, but measuring potential is still a challenge.  Further, with performance management systems and ratings falling out of favor, having a concrete 9-box conversation is even harder.

Here are some tactics the HR leaders suggested to remove as much subjectivity as possible:

  • Have an outside partner conduct an objective assessment of your employee’s potential; use it to confirm or disconfirm the results of your 9-box or talent review processes
  • Create structured interview/ facilitator guides to elicit evidence that supports the assessment of potential as part of talent review conversations
  • Ensure managers have a clear understanding on the difference between high performers with high potential compared to high performers with moderate potential; this distinction can be a tough one but is incredibly important
  • To support the above recommendation, calibrate the definition of potential by using examples of real people to describe what it looks like in your organization
  • Ask your leaders to think of someone who kept getting promoted and succeeding until eventually they failed; consider what qualities may have caused that eventual gap and use that thinking to help frame potential

Ultimately, though, these techniques rely heavily on observation, not data – which has its drawbacks.

Diversity & Inclusion: Battling Unconscious Bias

Because so many of the conversations around potential are based on observation, the assessment of potential is highly susceptible to unconscious bias. Without intention of harm, one person may label the same behaviors differently when demonstrated by different people.

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

  • Conduct talent reviews exclusively focused on diverse talent or the “unusual suspects”
  • Identify indicators for being inclusive; for example, one organization looks at whether people are open to forming teams with people different from them
  • Compare the diversity breakdown of succession plans/high potentials to that of the company
  • Parse engagement scores by key demographic breakdowns to determine what issues might need to be tackled or addressed for a particular group; for example, minority group members who are different from their manager may not be given as much feedback
  • Leverage objective and standardized assessment tools (e.g., independent and uniform assessments) to bring greater science to the process

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. One leader suggested Diversity & Inclusion should be ingrained into leaders’ thinking and organizational culture as much as Safety.

The Challenges of Global Assessment

Cultural differences provide their own challenge in both assessing potential and judging performance for global firms. The behaviors linked to potential may be demonstrated, experienced or understood differently based on cultural norms, complicating measurement.

  • One company has found the Ravens Advanced Progressive Matrices – a critical thinking appraisal that relies on pattern recognition – to be helpful in removing the bias against those where English is a second language, allowing for a more effective “apples to apples” comparison
  • As with Diversity & Inclusion, awareness of difference is important in mitigating unintentional negative impacts that may be attributed to cultural differences

You’ve Identified Potential! Now What?

Of course, defining, identifying, and assessing potential are only pieces of the puzzle. Once you have a differentiated group of leaders to attend to, what do you do? Placing high potentials in new roles or providing stretch assignments is a common step, but the group encouraged patience and the appropriate amount of support.

Potential doesn’t disappear as a HiPo initially struggles through a stretch opportunity. Here’s what our group had to say about supporting these leaders.

  • Whenever possible, pair them with a Best Boss; this is key to unlocking someone’s potential
  • Assign a senior business leader and an HR partner to orchestrate the HiPo’s development plan; this increases visibility and accountability while also spreading the responsibility beyond the dyad of HiPo and boss
  • If using a mentorship program, focus on the mentor-mentee match and ensure the program is structured so it’s easy for both parties to be successful
    • Match mentees with a mentor who has passion around the mentee’s goals
    • Involve HR in the matching process, and encourage chemistry-check conversations between mentee and mentor
    • Provide the mentor with clear goals for the program, and outlines for helpful conversation to have at each meetings – not because senior leaders can’t figure this out for themselves, but because they might not have the time to
  • For HiPos further along in their careers, a few organizations have created Junior Executive Councils to give up-and-comers the opportunity to work on strategy projects and allow the organization to see how they work

Uber-Potentials and the Retention Gap

Near the end of our conversation, one leader raised a problem for the group to discuss: Her organization runs a program for what they call their “uber-potentials”. One of the expected goals of the program was that it would help keep this talented group in the company longer, but they’re finding it’s not impacting retention significantly. Why?

Throughout the morning, the group returned again and again to aspiration, transparency, and the need for ongoing career conversations. As one leader said, “a lot of assumptions are made about what people want – we need to focus on getting that out of them”. If you make a succession plan, you need to know whether the people you’ve put in the plan actually want to be there.

It’s also important to remember that the desires and personal limitations that impact the assessment of potential may change. For instance, if a leader isn’t willing to relocate for a position in the next few years, that doesn’t mean she’s never willing to relocate. HR has a part to play in removing the fear and risk that some otherwise-high potential leaders might feel about taking themselves out of the game by pulling back from a particular role for personal reasons.

Based on our discussion, there is no shortage of energy around this important topic, and clearly, there is no ‘silver bullet’ out there – otherwise, we would all be doing the same thing! Nonetheless, there seems to be a growing awareness that the early identification of leadership potential is a strategic imperative. Additionally, the increasingly prevalent business objective of diversity and inclusion suggests there is a need for more objective measures in assessing this quality.  We are hopeful that the insight we gleaned from this session is just the start of further knowledge-sharing to come from the HR community. After all, enhancing our collective understanding of this important topic has, well…potential.

This post was co-authored by Lees Parkin.