Hanging On to Hi-Pos

An excerpt from a "Harvard Business Review" article offers some ideas on ways companies can hang on to their high potentials.

This article accompanies Perfecting the Hi-Pos.

Monday, April 2, 2012
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The war for talent shows no signs of letting up, even in sectors experiencing modest growth. According to a global study we conducted, only 15 percent of companies in North America and Asia believe that they have enough qualified successors for key positions.


As far as we know, no one has yet studied the process of managing high potentials from end to end. In order to fill this void, in 2007 we launched a joint research project with the executive search firm Egon Zehnder International, conducting a large-scale cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis of how companies assess and manage their rising stars. We also interviewed executives from 70 companies that have programs for high potentials -- firms of all sizes, located around the world.


We'll outline the strategic, selection, and managerial aspects of effective high-potential programs below. But first, let's start with a definition.

What Is Potential?

We were a little surprised to discover how many companies launch high-potential programs without first clearly establishing what they mean by "potential." We use the following simple definition: Potential indicates whether someone will be able to succeed in a bigger role in the future. It is a person's ability to grow and to handle responsibilities of greater scale and scope.


At the inner core are the individual's motives. These predict consistent patterns of behavior over time. They tend to be stable, are usually not conscious, and are highly related to what people enjoy and get energized or engaged by. Does the person get satisfaction from seeing others succeed? Does she demonstrate a passion for the organization's mission over personal reward?

One level out you'll find a series of abilities we call "leadership assets," which predict how far and how fast an executive will grow. There are four important assets: A high potential derives insight; she can make sense of a vast range of information and discover and apply new ideas that transform past practices or set new directions. She also effectively engages others through emotions and logic, communicating a persuasive vision and connecting individuals. She demonstrates resolve and keeps on driving toward goals despite challenges. Finally, and perhaps most important, a high potential seeks understanding; she constantly looks for new experiences, ideas, and knowledge; asks for feedback; and adjusts her behavior accordingly.

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At the next level is a sense of self, or identity. Identity is how you see yourself on the stage. For high potentials, this means envisioning yourself as a senior executive -- not just for the prestige but because you want to fulfill a passion for developing a team or make things happen.


Claudio Fernández-Aráoz is a senior adviser at Egon Zehnder International, the author of Great People Decisions (Wiley, 2007), and a frequent keynote speaker. Boris Groysberg is a professor of business administration in the Organizational Behavior unit at Harvard Business School. Nitin Nohria is the George F. Baker Professor of Administration and the dean of the faculty at Harvard Business School.

Read the entire article at the Harvard Business Review.

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