The Devil in the Details

Aerospace manufacturer Boeing Co. doesn’t use non-performance-related assessments to determine who makes it on its high potential list. Kirsten Aranda, the Chicago-based company’s director of talent management, said the company takes a collaborative approach to select individuals for its high potential program based on performance data and other analytics.

“We let leaders in [different functions] in the business identify who these individuals are,” she said. “Then we get very focused and results driven around actions that we’re taking with this group.”

Once Boeing’s high potential list is determined, a comprehensive leadership development phase begins. This includes assessments such as the leadership versatility index, which high potentials take in tandem with a leadership effectiveness course. Aranda described the versatility index as a “more robust 360 approach,” where peers are brought into the assessment process.

Aranda said holding formalized tests until after selection is advantageous to Boeing’s talent management function on two fronts. First, it helps the people being considered — they’re able to use the process to learn more about themselves and what they need to do to boost their own development. Second, it helps talent management collect data, enabling a bird’s eye view of the collective strengths and weaknesses in their leadership pipeline. Boeing’s high potential list also remains fluid: employees are moved on and off at any given time.

Global hospitality firm Hilton Worldwide Inc. uses a rigorous talent review process akin to the decision makers’ consensus approach (see sidebar) to determine high potential, again leaving psychometric assessments and the like until the development phase.

Doug Krey, Hilton’s senior vice president of HR systems and services, said the hotel prefers to focus on performance and competencies when determining a high potential. This is different from other firms that tend to focus on performance, plus competencies, plus some form of behavioral or personality assessment.

Krey said this approach is designed so potential candidates aren’t boxed in. It also helps ensure that hidden stars don’t fall through the cracks. “We tend to value more of a diversity of thought approach,” he said.

Hilton varies its post-selection assessment tools depending on the part of the world or business function a high-potential employee is in. “We have personality [assessments]; we have situational judgment questionnaires; we have verbal reasoning at some parts of the organization; we have psychometrics; we have 360s tied to our worldwide competencies; there’s a range of things,” said Sue Hale, Hilton’s vice president of leadership development.

Choosing which assessments to use to gauge potential is often not as complicated as deciding whether or not to inform employees they are considered high potential.

Both Krey and Hale expressed caution on this front. In general, Hilton is transparent with employees who are on such a track. But Krey said in some cases, carrying the label could actually impede an individual’s development. “It becomes challenging when people start carrying the label, and they start wearing it on their sleeve,” he said. “It’s usually not a good thing.”

This is why General Electric Co. (GE) doesn’t tell employees they are high potential. Karen Richardson, manager of executive development at the firm, said the company refrains from using the term high potential altogether.

GE, which has myriad high potential-like programs and processes, takes a studious approach to evaluating leadership succession and development at the executive level. Its executive assessment process starts with a formal interview with the individual. The interviews, which have been known to last up to eight hours, are held with a group of the company’s senior HR team members.

The second piece of the process includes 360 interviews with 15 to 20 of the individual’s work peers. Then, Richardson said the HR assessment team writes a 12- to 15-page paper on the individual — a detailed profile of the person’s work experience, hobbies outside work and personal life.

For the capstone of the process the individual writes a letter to the leader of his or her business unit and to GE CEO Jeff Immelt explaining a plan for further development. The employee is then placed into an optional coaching relationship to monitor the plan.

Richardson said GE does not incorporate personality or behavioral assessments. “We did incorporate [personality assessments] for one or two cycles,” she said. “… And, quite frankly, there was nothing that came out of the personality assessment that didn’t come out of the interview process.”

Potential Versus Performance