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No More HiPos Please

By Mark Busine

Mark Busine

Several years ago I was working with an organisation that had identified a number of high-potentials that they believed could be accelerated towards more senior roles. The individuals were identified with relatively loose criteria and then asked to attend a DDI assessment centre with the aim of obtaining a deeper and more objective view of their strengths and development opportunities against a senior leader success profile. One of the individuals asked to participate in this process was Josh. Josh had worked with the organisation for several years, had been pretty successful and was generally regarded as a ‘smart operator’ in what was a very technical environment. He valued the visibility the program offered and approached the assessment centre confident he would perform well.

Award CupFollowing the assessment centre, I was asked to share the feedback with Josh. This conversation, which involves sharing insights from the assessment centre and personality instruments, is the platform for ongoing development. It is the opportunity to gain clarity on the areas that can help accelerate one’s path to more senior levels. It is a powerful growth opportunity.

Approaching the conversation I was confident this would be a positive and constructive conversation. Josh had performed well in the assessment centre. With some focus in a couple of areas, he was well positioned to leverage the opportunity this program offered.

What I didn’t expect was Josh’s response. Despite a strong performance, he questioned the results immediately and intensely. He argued strongly against the data and focused his attention on proving how these insights did not match his view of himself. He also focused on ‘who would see the results’ and the impression that others might form from the results.

It is important to clarify at this point that seeking to understand your feedback is a normal and justifiable response. In fact, we encourage people to unpack the results in order to enhance their understanding of their strengths and development areas and ultimately clarify the behaviours and actions that will facilitate growth. But Josh’s reaction was different. He displayed zero receptivity to the feedback and was clearly focused on using this information to validate his position as a ‘high-potential.’

When I shared this discussion with the internal stakeholders their response shocked me even more. They were not surprised. They were in fact very aware of his lack of receptivity to feedback and cited numerous examples of where this had derailed him. Their decision to put him in the high-potential program and the assessment centre process was essentially a tactic to avoid confrontation. Of course the tactic backfired and Josh’s reaction created serious problems for the internal stakeholders.

The importance of a growth mindset

If I were to pick one element that is core to an individual’s suitability for a high-potential pool it is their mindset—and in particular, the degree to which they bring a fixed or growth mindset. The concept of fixed and growth mindsets draws on the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. Over the course of twenty years, Dweck researched the power of beliefs, both conscious and unconscious and how these contribute to success and achievement. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she concluded that people approach situations with either a fixed or growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset tend to view their basic abilities, like their intelligence or competence as fixed. They spend their time documenting their abilities instead of developing it. Those with a growth mindset view basic abilities as something that can be cultivated and developed, so as a result, those with a growth mindset develop a passion for learning and development rather than a hunger for approval. Finally, those with a fixed mindset view development and opportunity as an entitlement whereas those with a growth mindset view development and opportunity as a gift.

So what’s the problem with “high-potential?”

In her work with students and adults, Dweck discovered the power that language can have on an individual’s mindset. In particular, the different impact that praising someone for their intelligence vs their effort could have on their approach to development. In one study, Dweck and her colleagues took around 400 students and gave them a simple, nonverbal test of intelligence. At the end of the test she divided the students in to two groups. One group was praised for their intelligence (i.e. how smart they were) while the others were praised for their effort (i.e. how hard they worked). While on the surface the difference between these two types of praise may appear subtle, the impact was profound.

Following the first test, the two groups were given two options for a follow-up test. The first option was a test that would be a little harder, but would be a great opportunity to learn. The second option was a test that was similar to the first and as such there was a good chance they would do well. Out of the group that were praised for their intelligence, 67 percent of the students elected to do the easier test while 92 percent of those who were praised for their effort chose the harder option.

Praising the students for their intelligence activated a fixed mindset where the student became more focused on protecting their performance and status. Praising the students for effort activated a growth mindset where students engaged in the opportunity for growth.

With this in mind, consider what happens when we tell someone they are a high-potential or are part of a high-potential pool. The risk is that we activate a fixed mindset. Even if we identify individuals with a strong development orientation and receptivity to feedback, this may be switched off as they enter one of their most important development opportunities. As a result, their actions and efforts may subconsciously focus on protecting their status as a ‘high-potential’ rather than focussing on their growth.

In the example above, Josh clearly approached the experience with a fixed mindset. He was not open to using this opportunity for growth and development. In his mind, he was already successful and this information would simply validate that view.

So what is the implication for high-potentials' programs and pools?

  • Individuals identified for a pool need to understand that they are engaging in an accelerated development opportunity. Ensure the language and expectations are clear.
  • Emphasise that participation in a pool is recognition of their previous commitment to growth and development.
  • Continue to reinforce the importance of the growth mindset and create opportunities for individuals to stretch themselves; this will lead to acceleration. Celebrate learning and failure.
  • Consider dropping the use of the term high-potentials (this will be discussed more in the next blog).

This is the first of two blogs on high potentials and high-potential programs. In the second blog I will explore the role and mechanics of high-potential programs and offer suggestions on what organisations can do to maximise their impact.

Mark Busine is Managing Director for DDI Australia.

Posted: 05 Jul, 2016,
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