Written by Jaclyn Menendez, Ph.D., Project Consultant
Previously published by PSI Talent Management or Cubiks, prior to becoming Talogy.
The search for high potential talent can be an exhausting one. You want to be on the lookout for the next top performer but you’re dealing with employees who haven’t had a chance to lead yet. Most managers continue to scratch their heads over how to understand the “potential” aspect of a “high potential.” How can you better determine whose promising possibilities will lead to actual results? When your employees don’t have the experience or the background, you can still assess their potential for high performance by reflecting on their observable abilities. We suggest starting with these three areas:
1. Work Style.
The way an employee accounts for their own performance will tell you a lot about how they’ll handle big projects or lead others. Do they have high accountability for their actions, or do they tend to rely on excuses when things don’t work out? People with a strong internal sense of control are typically better performers because they understand how their actions directly contribute to results. What about their motivational drive: does this employee have a laid-back approach to achieving goals, or are they noticeably driven to achieve success? While either type of employee can be a solid performer, most top talent will have higher achievement motivation. Not only does this typically translate to more visible wins for their team, leaders tend to be more successful when they themselves embody the “need to win” attitude that they expect from their followers.
2. Problem Solving.
It’s no secret that on-the-job performance is related to general mental ability. While top talent indicators are more nuanced than any single measure, problem-solving ability is likely to provide useful information about a high potential’s future likelihood to succeed. When they are faced with a complex or detailed issue, what approach do they take? Are they big-picture thinkers, highly detail-oriented, or somewhere in between? Being comfortable with details and data is a sign of advanced-critical thinking skills. Most top performers are able to get in the weeds when they need to without losing sight of the larger issues at play. If your HiPo employee often gets stuck on the symptoms of a problem without being able to identify the root cause, then you shouldn’t expect them to suddenly develop more advanced problem-solving skills without considerable development work. Read more about developing and engaging leaders.
3. Interpersonal Skills.
The “soft” skills of a top performer is always an interesting discussion point when it comes to high potentials. Some managers feel that interpersonal skills are the least important facet of a developing employee. Others can be blinded by a charismatic up-and-comer, to the extent where interpersonal skills are the only thing keeping that person afloat. While neither of these extremes is ideal, research shows that interpersonal style is critically important at the high potential stage. This goes far beyond simple charisma, though: when reflecting on one’s social skills, dig deep and think of actual interactions you’ve had with them or witnessed firsthand. What was their conflict management style like? Are they avoidant or comfortable in high-stakes situations? Do they work well with others? If so, be specific: is it their self-awareness that makes them a successful collaborator? Or are they highly insightful and sensitive to others in a diverse workgroup? No matter what the trait, you should be able to pinpoint it clearly to ensure that it maps onto a job-related competency. That way, you can avoid any implicit biases that might be causing you to overlook larger deficits in their potential.
In an ideal world, all high potentials would transform into high performers. Unfortunately, we know that’s not the case. However, by breaking down the concept of “high potential” into easily observable behaviors and traits, we can get one step closer to an accurate prediction.