Is Potential All There Is?

There are many ways to scout potential beyond simply saying, gee, that person performs well.

Are high potentials the best candidates for leadership? In other words, when you want someone to move up the ladder, is that the only pool to look at within an organization? Harold D. Stolovitch, emeritus professor of workplace learning and performance at the Universite de Montreal, and principal of HSA Learning & Performing Solutions LLC, said no. But to ensure the right leaders are developed to meet the organization’s needs, there’s some pre-work to be done.

Is looking for high-potential talent amidst top performers the only way to scout leadership potential?
Stolovitch: Here’s the problem. The word talent has multiple meanings. Often we think it’s some endowed capability that people have, and once they have it, it’s sort of a thing for life. We often confuse talent with ability to perform. A lot depends on how an organization defines talent. One organization may define talent as the people who get the best sales results, or the highest dollars in, which is different from another organization which may look for people who have the greatest ability to build teams. Talent becomes a very general and amorphous type of word.

The other thing is in how we measure talent. There’s a whole lot of research that shows that people who appear to be talented in one organization, when they are taken into another organization may not perform as well and often don’t. They may be very context dependent. Now to finally answer your question, you need to be very careful and clear in what you’re looking for, how you define your talent. Then look for it in a variety of situations and places because a person who has high potential in a team that’s selling and can be a leader there may not necessarily perform as well in other contexts. There are many ways to scout potential for high performance and for leadership capability beyond simply saying, gee, that person performs well.

If there are other options, why do most organizations go specifically to that one pool?
Stolovitch: Very often the top leaders in organizations are driven by a form of ideological thinking, and are looking for people like themselves. They say, “If I got it and I made it, we want to get clones of me.” That can be very dangerous in these turbulent times when things are changing so rapidly. You may need a different form of leadership and a different set of capabilities to do the job. That’s one of the main reasons. The other is that we don’t clearly define what it is we’re looking for from other people. There are some organizations that go out and do studies of leadership, and they come up with the 12 qualities of an effective top leader.

The problem with that is if all their leadership team had those 12 qualities they could be in real trouble. There needs to be tension among them. Traditional strategies like performance assessments, which are very dicey things at the best of times, set up criteria that may not be appropriate to what they’re really looking for in the final analysis.

Most of the time talented leadership is the result of an interaction between the individual and the system in which the person operates. You can have some very talented people who are hidden because the system isn’t exploiting them properly. I’m thinking particularly of Steve Young, for example, and Kurt Warner who, when they started out in their professional football careers, sat on the bench a long time. It wasn’t until they were traded into the right organizations that they showed the type of talent and leadership they had, and both won Most Valuable Player and played in the Super Bowl. Those examples are from sports, but we can take this from any area.

To summarize, start with what it is that you really want your leaders to be able to accomplish, to perform. Then look for people who are performing and achieving those things and then backward chain to find out what makes for that success. Often you’ll find that it’s an interaction between the system in which they’re operating and their capabilities. Then, see what produced them. Where can we spot these [individuals] elsewhere in our organization or other organizations if we’re looking outside? I’m much more concerned with that than the 12 attributes of talented leaders and looking simply at numbers rather than at what else makes for great talent or a great performing leader.

When you referred to the system, what do you mean exactly?
Stolovitch: If you look throughout history at heroes, heroes overcame incredible obstacles to achieve success. Many of those heroes ended up dead. In other words, when people are working in an organization, you have to look at the context in which people operate to see if it’s supporting high performance and encouraging those that have the capability to do well, to do well.

Are they crushing people? Are they forcing them into molds? Are they giving them Joe jobs? I’ll give you an example. I was working with a high-tech company. They brought together people who had demonstrated excellent engineering design success. They put them into a team because they thought these people would work well together to produce new, innovative products. As these people worked the marketing people looked at it and said no, that won’t work in this market, no, that won’t work in this market. After they came up with several wonderful ideas that didn’t seem to take off, there was tremendous discouragement there. Eventually many of them floated away from that company to other companies. Rather than looking and saying that people who perform extremely well also make mistakes or need encouragement, they simply said “Produce; no, it’s not working.” When you place people who have potential into systems that don’t allow them to demonstrate it, you’ve got a problem.

If you really want to get excellent leadership into your organization, take a look at what you want to achieve. Look at those who are already achieving it regardless of level, right down to the shop floor. Look at where these people came from. Look at the system supporting them and in which they operate, and pull those pieces together to see those who will give the greatest contributions. It’s a little bit like if you talk about interviewing as the best way to hire people. Interviewing is not the greatest way to hire people. During an interview we tend to only get a superficial reading, and we tend to look for people who are like ourselves. It very well may be that the great leaders for your organization aren’t like you at all, and that’s good.

One organization I worked with, an electrical utility, is an old-style industry that’s moving into a green and new innovative era, and yet when I examined some 267 of the top people and how they got into those jobs, most of them had long associations with other people who were in those jobs. Women were a strong minority; minorities were an incredibly strong minority because they didn’t fit the classic molds. Look for the performance you’re going to need. Look ahead in your organization and work backwards from that.

What to Read
Looking to shake up how you identify leadership talent? Harold D. Stolovitch recommends Boris Groysberg’s Chasing Stars: The Myth of Talent and the Portability of Performance.

“He’s a Harvard professor, and he gives a lot of research to show that there’s a lot of mythology related to identifying talent and portability of talent from one context to another. Being an academic I like to suggest things, but these are not academic books per se; they’re very good for leadership people.

“Another is Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton.