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The High Potential Pathway: From Daycare to the C-Suite

Authors: Roger Pearman and Robert Eichinger – Managing Partners

Many organizations are on the hunt for the elusive High Potentials to hire and groom into leaders. Why? Because High Potentials with the right stuff, developed the right way, can grow into effective and highly impactful senior leaders of companies, global corporations, non-profits, government and military.

Elusive? Our 50-year research on High Potentials estimates this group makes up 5% or less of the working population. They are rare and they are valuable.

What is Potential? There are six core characteristics and a key driver for this vetted and verified contributor:
  • Curiosity – thirst to know  
  • Learning agility – able to learn lessons and apply them later in new configurations
  • IQ – the conceptual horsepower to learn, remember and apply knowledge and experience
  • Pattern detection – the tendency to see things in terms of the big picture
  • Associative intelligence, or conceptual complexity capability                  
  • EQ or people skills – the ability to leverage others to join in getting great things done
  • High Potentials have an overriding urge to achieve, with aspirations to be a leader

Where does potential come from? It is half hardwired at birth and half developed along the way.  People are both similar and different in many ways, right from the start. Partial predispositions for the six core characteristics above are built into the brain and nervous system. One way we know this is that Potential shows up early and without much development. You can observe it in a daycare or kindergarten class of 28. You can see it more clearly in 100 High School seniors and it will be much more well-defined in 1000 college graduates. Throughout life, the vetted and verified High Potential exhibits the six core characteristics.

Child Finger-painting Photo
Potential shows up early and without much development.

Talent scouts, and observers attracted to identifying and watching people of talent, see it in young athletes, musicians, young actors in plays and musical theater, academic achievers in spelling bees and debates, and in student leaders.

Yet, having Potential isn’t a golden ticket to the C-Suite. In order for High Potentials to earn their way to the top, they have to go through “DIVA” development experiences to flourish while leading people and organizations in a VUCA world. Fifty years of rigorous and longitudinal study has documented that people with Potential need to go through life and work exposures and experiences that follow the DIVA screen:  

  • D – Diversity of exposures and experiences  
  • I –  Intensity of experiences
  • V – Variety of challenges and issues
  • A – Adversity during things that count: the joy of winning and the agony of defeat 

It has been proven that a person with the right stuff (Potential), developed through DIVA, can then move to senior leadership and effectively and successfully manage people and organizations to flourish in the VUCA world (V – Volatility, U – Uncertainty, C – Complexity, A – Ambiguity). In a sense, going through little DIVAs gets you ready to lead under big VUCA.

When persons with Potential excel by getting the right development, organizations can flourish when being led by them

Several ways DIVA works: 

Change majors a number of times and/or attend different educational institutions along the way. Take on part-time and summer jobs or internships that are significantly different – paper route, construction, fast food, camp counselor, farm field, or factory. Then perhaps seek out a paid internship in a charitable organization. Move across functions, geographies, challenges and product and service lines. Work with a range of diverse colleagues and customers. Change companies more often to experience more variety. Too much change, variety and uncertainty? For many, it is.

Where can you find people with Potential for your organization? Everywhere, but more typically they are identified during campus recruiting. Talent scouts can detect them in interviews by looking for the six core characteristics across the whole of life and work. Do they have a history of curiosity and the thirst for knowledge? Creativity and innovation evidence? Elected leadership roles? Learning from setbacks and disappointments? Aspirations? For trained and skilled talent scouts of college graduates, it’s easy to discover.

What to do if you are lucky enough to land a High Potential? Provide career long DIVA development that is managed, sculpted, contoured. Move them around more than others. Get them engaged and involved in more than just their current job. Provide as many highly diverse and varied exposures and experiences as possible. Invite them to certain meetings more often than others. Have them meet with VIP visitors. Get them working on task forces and study groups. Assign mentors and coaches.

The six core characteristics, regardless of their origin, drive learning of the lessons of life and work by being exposed to and experiencing DIVA, which develops the skills and competencies of leadership which, over time, blossom into effective VUCA leadership. The essential skill set is to take learnings from the past, both personal and from others, and craft unique and never before done responses and reactions to never before seen challenges and crises. Staying ahead of the bow in the wave of change.

The Challenge with High Potentials  

Unchallenged potential does not flourish. High potentials are not patient, nor are they easy to manage. They expect palpable attention and development or they will move on. You need a strategy and, often, a hi-po budget to support them. If not properly nurtured, High Potential talent is a terrible thing to lose…especially to your competitors.

Post note:  Potential can be developed. It can get stronger over a career!

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