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What the Hell is a High Potential?

Authored by: Lisa-Marie Hanson, Chief Learning and Marketing Officer Garrick Throckmorton

In my career as a practitioner, along with my organizational sponsors, high potential identification seemed conceptually easy to do, but really hard to get done. Seems we just couldn’t figure out what the hell a high potential really was, and then… what to do with them.

I was pleased when Bob Eichinger (talent guru and no-nonsense, plain speaking thought leader) entitled his January Minneapolis Professionals of Psychology Applied to Work presentation as “What the Hell is a High Potential?” because frankly, strong language around this issue is needed, and Bob was able to bring the question to the table perfectly–and yes; he had our full attention.

The thing that makes high potential identification difficult is that everyone wants to be labeled high potential. Kind of like a virtue, a descriptor of worth. Comparatively, Bob clarified that high potential is the ability to move to roles and jobs of greater size and responsibility–and be successful. A lot of people don’t have what it takes nor want to be at the top of the house. And worse yet, many organizations mistake high performance or even sheer intelligence with being high potential. The research has shown that potential has an in-common set of KSAs (Knowledge Skills and Attributes), generally showing in cognitive power, learning agility, curiosity, and operational EQ.

Then, Bob offered the secret sauce. High potential identification starts with babies. Babies? Yep. We’ve all seen that “baby with the spark” in the cart at the grocery store, the child prodigy or genius who grabs our attention on YouTube and makes us wonder, how the hell did that happen?

Babies are born different and adults become different. They are very different because experiences vary. Babies have “starter kits” or predispositions (Nature), that when watered and fed the right way (Nurture), grow into full-blown leadership capabilities and characteristics. Bob cited the remarkable longitudinal Twins Studies (Bouchard) and the nature/nurture finding of 49/51. Both matter to high potential identification.

However, the part we can control (as parents, as developers of people) is the support and offer of the “right opportunity”. Opportunities can reveal, challenge and teach something vital. Opportunities present themselves in childhood: pre-school, kindergarten, elementary school, high school, college–and even 22 summers of amazing, memorable experiences. Additionally, work opportunities can include life-changing moments too. The research of Bennis & Thomas called them crucible experiences, ones that create intense transformation and truly change us. Back to the secret sauce: Opportunities Matter. The presence or absence of transformative learning and experience combined with the “starter kit” can determine a potential. High potentials wrest meaning from all they experience and become people with noticeable differentiation.

Then, Bob put it all in the context of the human experience: the timeline of babies with starter kits, a lifetime of experiences, coming to work and gaining the Knowledge Skills and Attributes within 3 levels of work: Individual Contributor, Manager and finally (top of the house) Leader.

KSAP – The Knowledge Skills and Attributes of Potentials, by TalentTelligent, includes 12 Markers and Drivers and 25 Practices. These identify the hallmark qualities of individuals who can grow significantly into future leadership roles. These Markers help frame an understanding of the nature of high potential and are essential to defining potential.

Simply, it’s Potential meeting Opportunity. If we as practitioners can combine and manage the opportunities we offer people with Potential (accurately assessed with KSAP: KSAs of Potential), we have our plan. One that can actually be accomplished organizationally.

After Bob was done, I heard a comment that caught my ear and made me smile: “That was great, but where the hell has this research been all my career?!”

Bob’s passion for researching the topic of Potential, and others, was a primary driving force behind building TalentTelligent with Roger Pearman. TalentTelligent has created scientifically derived performance libraries for Leaders, Managers, Individual Contributors, High Potentials, and Teams. Supporting these libraries are talent tools that can be used to solve today’s problems across the entire talent management system from interviewing to development, succession, high potential identification, team building, assessment and more.

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