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HiPo or HiPro? Setting Your Employees on the Optimal Path for Career Success

by Susanne Krivanek on

Promoting and hiring leadership talent can be one of the hardest decisions managers need to make, and many have not yet mastered it.  Research by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) has revealed just how serious the issue is: approximately 46% of leaders moving into new roles fail to meet business objectives.  This begs the question – how much of this is due to promoting and developing the wrong people for leadership roles?

Managers might assume that because an individual contributor performs highly in their current role, they would excel in a leadership role.  Yet, the CEB also estimates that only 15% of employees who are high performers are also high potential leaders.

You may have heard something like this from one of your peers in the past: “Bob is not showing signs of leadership now, but what harm can come from putting him in a manager role and seeing if he sinks or swims?”

I think we can all agree that a lot of harm can come from this.  It can be extremely demotivating for an ambitious, successful professional to fail as a leader – not to mention the negative impact on business results and team morale.  Ensuring professionals are on the right career track benefits both the organization and the professional.

The Two Career Paths – HiPo or HiPro

For professionals who articulate a desire to contribute additional value and broaden their impact within the organization, begin by considering which of two main career paths would be a fit for them.

The first is the High Professional, or HiPro, path.  These individuals are experts in what they do.  They have talent that adds significant value to the organization and expertise that others benefit from.   However, not all of these professionals have the desire, skill or potential to lead others.

Before promoting them, gauge their interest and motivation for a leadership role through a career conversation.  Afterwards, if you’re still unsure of the optimal path, use tools (such as a development assessment) to help determine their strengths and areas of improvement.

The other path is ideal for professionals who both aspire to a leadership role and have the ability to excel at driving results through others. These are leadership potentials, or HiPos.

How Do You Know If Professionals Truly Will be Good at Leading Others?

This can take some time and focus to determine.  Consider the quote by LinkedIn’s CEO, Jeff Weiner:

“A manager is someone who tells people what to do.  A leader is someone who inspires people to do great things.”

Almost anyone can give direction.  However, inspiring others to give their best, engaging them in the organization’s vision, and helping them develop professionally is much harder to accomplish – and at the core of what many organizations need from their leaders.

We recommend managers step back to assess whether professionals demonstrate signs of leadership potential.  Do they express desire for a leadership role, a commitment to the organization, and show signs of being able to take on a leadership position?

This last component is HUGE, and the signs are not static or one-size-fits-all.  In examining leadership potential, here are a few of the factors that the Vantage team takes into consideration:

  • Capacity to build followership – Does the individual have interpersonal awareness, and are they able to engage, inspire, and influence others?
  • Drive to achieve and improve – Does the individual drive towards excellence, persevere, and motivate others to do the same?
  • Agility in thinking and learning – Does the individual think strategically about issues, shift and learn in response to changing factors? Can they help others to think more broadly and deal effectively with change?

When considering aspiration for a leadership role, explore why the professional feels the role would be a fit for them.  To prepare for this conversation, have some good coaching questions in your tool box.  Consider articles such as HBR’s “Five Questions Every Mentor Must Ask.”  During the conversations, look for red-flag rationalizations for pursuing a leadership role, such as: “Well, it’s just the next logical step in my career,” or some version of “my boss expects employees to move up.”

It is also important to note that motivations and priorities can shift over time, so hold career conversations periodically to assess any changes.

What the HiPro & HiPo Paths Look Like

Career development strategies for a high professional versus a high potential can differ greatly.  If you visualize a development path as climbing a mountain, the trek for a high performer looking to further build expertise and effectiveness tends to be a strong climb straight up the mountain; development is focused in their lane of expertise.

For those looking to develop as an enterprise leader, the journey is not straight; it winds around the mountain and involves time in “base camps,” gaining different experiences from around the organization.  This broader approach helps the leader gain the perspectives needed to make effective decisions and lead across business functions at higher levels.  Additionally, the focus of a HiPo’s development goes beyond reaching the “summit” of attaining the position – it includes a focus on ensuring continued success once in the leadership role.

Helping Set Guideposts Along the Path

Once a potential career progression is mapped out, help employees understand what an actionable development plan looks like.

It can be a natural inclination for individual contributors to assume that development mainly entails formal training (e.g. certifications, classroom).  However, it’s important for employees to understand effective development is much broader and more strategic than that.  Help them to determine the optimal development objectives to achieve and then how to tie their actions to those goals.

For someone whose career path may be better suited towards development as a high performing expert (HiPro), yet is eager to add value to the organization, make sure they understand the impact that they can have on the company and the value they add.  Assist them in creating a development plan that will broaden their expertise and/or help them to share their knowledge and skill with others.   Activities such as continuous improvement initiatives, training, and mentoring others are all worth considering for HiPros – it depends on what motivates them.  See our previous post for more development strategies for HiPros.

For those developing towards leadership roles, HiPos, look for diverse experiences aligned to their development objectives (e.g., mentoring, networking, assignments that allow them to apply and grow their leadership talent).  Ensure professionals realize the importance of practicing gains in knowledge and skill whenever possible, and encourage them to seek feedback to gauge whether their development is on track.  For more information on this area, see the article, What Your Development Plan Says About You.

Effectively guiding employees through this process is well worth the time invested – the positive impact for the professional and company can be significant   It is also worth revisiting periodically: a career plan, like people, will likely evolve over time.

The topic of career path and development strategies is extensive, and there is no shortage of tips and techniques. What have you found to be useful? 

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