Every few months, we bring together HR leaders from a range of organizations to discuss hot topics in the HR world and share their struggles and successes with each other in a roundtable forum. At our most recent roundtable, 15 HR leaders had a fascinating conversation on how to best define, identify and cultivate leadership potential.

To start the conversation, we shared a graphic of an Organizational Maturity Continuum of Potential and invited each leader around the table to rate where they would place their organization. The rating scale started at 1 (“There is a lack of understanding and standard for measuring potential”) and went up to 4 (“Measurement & development of potential is integrated into strategies and consistently applied”). The responses varied from “1 moving to 2” to “close to a 4”.

For some, their organization was just starting the culture shift necessary to understand and execute on a process for managing potential. Others had a process, but it lacked objectivity, or their definitions were murky, creating a lack of confidence that the process was achieving its aims. And yet others placed themselves on the high end, feeling that they’d “demystified potential” and had integrated it successfully into their strategy.

The 9-Box Struggle

Throughout the conversation, a theme emerged around the need for clear definitions and tools that translate directly into action. The ubiquitous 9-box tool, with its high degree of differentiation, was both “loved by our leaders” because it put a process and framework around the conversation but was also the source of some ire for the HR professionals in the room. Assigning talent to the boxes was the primary action leaders took to manage potential. There was little or no process in place to objectively assign 9-box placement.  Performance easily became over-weighted. Potential lacked a clear definition. While next steps were assigned to each box, leaders weren’t taking them. Unfortunately, the filling out the 9-box became the end goal, rather than a tool to inform high-potential development and succession planning.

Several participants indicated a recent move to simpler frameworks – a 4-box or a 5-box – that led more directly to action and focused their internal discussions. Rather than force categorization of employees across a number of boxes whose distinctions weren’t always clear, the simpler frameworks helped focus on employees who truly need attention. To fill their grids, leaders were educated on how to assess their talent – what questions to ask, what leadership behaviors to focus on – and prepared for talent reviews by gathering specific examples to back their opinions.

For some, the word “potential” itself was being questioned or replaced with other, less ambiguous terms that were easier for their executives to evaluate against. For example, one organization used the term “scalability” because it forced the question, “Scale to what?” This was also helpful in terms of discussing career paths in a more objective way with all employees – and not marginalizing mid-range performers. Another organization used the term “top talent” instead of “high potential” to better encapsulate the variety of ways potential and performance might show up (such as lower performers with high potential).

Very few participants were using an objective assessment tool to identify potential. Decisions were made primarily through calibration with varying levels of subjective/objective data to back up the conversations. When assessments were used, they were administered after a leader was identified as a HiPo and used to help inform developmental planning and coaching.

The Mobility Issue

In making decisions on talent, a key component was the top talent’s own desires to be considered for bigger roles, and other personal considerations of the leader in question. Whether the leader was able to be mobile at the time was a prevalent issue and was handled in various ways. For one organization, “not mobile” had meant “no potential” for a long time, but that hard line was starting to shift. Other organizations were flexing to the needs of their talent – if a high potential was “not mobile” and also successor for a role in a different location, the organization would consider whether the role could be mobile and change location instead of the talent. Others only felt the mobility issue when it came to preparing a leader for a new role – if global experience was necessary for readiness, being “not mobile” might mean that next role wasn’t a good one for that leader.

The amount of travel required for leaders in global organizations meant where leaders spent their weekends was becoming less and less of an issue, but the need to be able to lead like they weren’t virtual (when in fact they were) was a key consideration. While the discussion did acknowledge more flexibility in the area of mobility, our leaders admitted that mobility expectations driven by cultural pressures still widely exist.

While factors related to relocation (and any other personal considerations) can of course change over time, they can have an impact in the moment, as some cultures will question an individual’s commitment to their personal development – and ultimately, to the organization.

Taking Action

Once potential has been identified, taking timely action to unlock it is crucial. One leader suggested that whether a decision was based on subjective or objective data was less important because the organization’s bias towards action meant they’d quickly learn whether they’d made the right call.

The group found that the following actions returned the highest ROI:

  • Providing experience managing a turn-around
  • Global experience
  • Any job that stretches the leader
  • Providing a senior business mentor
  • Cross-functional teams solving a real business problem
  • Building a community of HiPos to share and learn from each other

Providing a safety net for any activities that require risk is important for top talent, so that failure at a stretch opportunity doesn’t mean they’ve failed at advancing their career. One organization tracks metrics closely so they’re able to swoop in with support should things appear to be going off-track.

Managing Potential Involves the Whole Organization

Throughout our conversation, the degree to which this process involved the whole organization was reflected in various ways.

We talked about the intersection of Potential and Diversity & Inclusion goals. To make sure they have visibility on the widest range of talent, one organization brings every single manager into the talent review conversations. Another brings the team below into the executive team’s discussions.

Others talked about the importance of providing mentors (even going outside the organization to find appropriate mentors that match on important variables), as well as sponsors who will advocate for top talent and open doors for them. While for some it can be a struggle to create a mentoring relationship that properly adds value, getting asked to be a mentor in one organization has become an honor – it’s seen as an opportunity to expand their legacy beyond their own domain.

Providing a team of supporters for top talent was a common approach. Executive coaches, managers, skip-level bosses, senior business mentors, and sponsors were all used to create a group of stakeholders that took responsibility for accelerating the development of HiPos.

Bottom line: the more support and mechanisms for accountability you build around your high potential, the better.

Most organizations are still at the beginning of their journey toward fully integrating potential into their leadership identification and development processes. We will continue hosting roundtables on this and other areas to create a forum to share learnings on important topics that impact organization’s quest for top leadership talent.