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High Potentials and Stem Cells

Authored by: Managing Partners Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger

How are High Potentials like stem cells? At a basic level, stem cells are experts in differentation which is a practice need to identify, develop and appropriately deploy our high potential talent. Let’s start by aligning our mindsets on stem cells first.

Adult and fetal Stem Cells are unique in that they can develop into many different cell types in the body, serving as a building material and sort of repair system. They can divide and differentiate into specialized cells and can also self-renew to produce more stem cells. This allows them to potentially regenerate damaged tissues and provide ongoing support to the body. The use of stem cells in medicine is a rapidly developing field, with researchers exploring various ways to harness their regenerative properties for the treatment of various diseases and conditions.

Fetal stem cells are origin stem cells contained in a developing fetus. Like adult stem cells, they have the ability to differentiate into a variety of cell types, which makes them potentially useful for medical applications. Researchers are interested in fetal stem cells because they are thought to have a higher capacity for proliferation and differentiation compared to adult stem cells, which could make them more effective for regenerative medicine.

In some cases, fetal stem cells have been used in transplantation procedures to treat conditions such as certain types of cancer, inherited metabolic disorders, and immune deficiencies. 

It’s About Differentiation

Stem cells morph into specialized cells by a process called differentiation. This process is regulated by a complex network of signals and genetic interactions. As a stem cell divides, it becomes more specialized and eventually becomes a specific cell type, such as a muscle cell or a nerve cell, with a specific function. This process of differentiation is controlled by changes in gene expression, which determines the specific set of proteins produced by the cell and ultimately determines its fate.

The human body with all its types of material starts with just stem cells. Eyes, toes, nails, hair, nerves and blood all start the same. The differentiation process turns them into materially different parts with unique capabilities.

Another Parallel

It’s similar to athleticism. Coaches and parents comment that a youngster has athletic promise or potential.  Athletic promise involves the following nine characteristics:

  1. Physical fitness: strong cardiovascular system, flexibility, strength, power, speed, and endurance
  2. Coordination: ability to effectively coordinate movements and balance
  3. Agility: ability to change direction quickly and smoothly
  4. Reaction time: quick response to stimuli
  5. Body control: ability to maintain control and balance of the body while performing movements
  6. Balance: ability to maintain equilibrium
  7. Endurance: ability to sustain physical activity for an extended period.
  8. Eye-hand coordination: Where does my hand and arm need to be to hit/catch the ball?
  9. Spatial relations assessment: Where is the ball or puck going to be? How many strides ahead is the hurdle? Where do I plant my jump foot?

Athletic potential could lead to strong performance in many sports and in many positions within those sports. Differentiation occurs and it is likely to depend upon specialized experience in a few or even one sport, and coaching and parental guidance. It could move toward team of individual sports. Athletic potential would remain potential if there is no practice, playing or coaching. There are a few all-around athletes who excel in multiple sports, such as for pentathlons, decathlons or the Iron Man/Woman competition. Very few at the professional sports level play multiple sports.

More On Potential

A high potential has potential, but for what?  That potential depends upon exposures, experiences, skill building, attribute development, parents and coaches. For most, potential for leadership and management is underdeveloped. There are few parents, teachers and others who really understand the development protocols for the full flourishing of leadership potential.  More commonly developed potential comes from math, art, music, dance and dramatic child prodigies. These disciplines offer easier to notice and more commonly understood development plans. Potential for leadership is less well understood. 

Everyone has some potential.  The question is for what?

At the upper end of High Potential is Highest Potential. People who have the Highest Potential can go all the way. All the way to what or where?  The top of organizations, whether in for-profit, non-profit, military, education, government, community service or any other organization, even the United Nations. To be at the top means being a Board Member, C-Suite Officer, VP, General Manager and Managing Director, Division President or Functional Lead.

Highest Potential has three foundational components.  1. The capacity for deep complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty (cognitive capabilities). 2. The ability to learn the lessons of life and work from exposures, experiences and knowledge-based learning (applied agility), and the interest and motivation to take the initiative and make the sacrifices to climb the life and career ladder (achievement orientation).

Potential, like athletic promise and child prodigy, has to be followed by protocol development or potential remains just potential, yet unrealized.

For leadership and management development, Potential follows two general rubrics. To grow and flourish, DIVA is needed.  Diversity and Variety of exposures, experiences and learning opportunities at the level of Intensity and Adversity. Tough challenges teach. The more different, the better.  Exposures and experiences are best thought of with the 70/20/10 meme.  Successful executives report that 70% of their work lessons came from tough and different job assignments, 20% from others, mostly bosses and 10% from knowledge learning (education and eLearning).

Strategic, developmental career planning and execution is necessary to convert potential into reality.

Highest Potentials are the Stem Cells of Organizations

For most, like stem cells and promising athletes, differentiation occurs. It’s a big world.  Somewhere along the career line, each specializes. For organizational leadership, they differentiate into SORTI.  Some become Strategists and visionaries, some executional and Operations experts, some develop into people Relationship operatives, some into top Technology roles and others into International or global operations.

There are some who become proficient in more than one SORTI element, but it is rare to find leaders that are good at everything. Can you think of any?

So, you can send in a SORTI Highest Potential to solve the toughest organizational problems and to repair what’s broken.  Since they are rapid learners, they can quickly assess the situation and create multiple responses.

So, from the beginning, the young and then early career Highest Potentials are similar—curious, quick, motivated and passionate. Then most go on to specialize and differentiate. For business it’s in the SORTI elements. For many, they don’t flourish because the best developmental protocols were not applied.  Parents, schools, coaches and other support people did not coordinate development. Development takes resources.  If learning and development resources are not provided then potential remains, well, just potential.

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