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The Experiences of High Potentials Differ—But Often in the Wrong Ways

By Evan Sinar, Ph.D.

Evan Sinar, Ph.D. High-potential leaders are an organization’s fortunate few—on average, about 20 percent of all leaders in the company. High potentials are typically tapped based on a combination of current performance and future potential. They are the focus of devoted energies and attention well beyond that of leaders not designated as high potentials. Because of this, they should be having more positive experiences—better treatment and better outcomes.

But is this always the case? Which of the presumed advantages of being “in the pool” really hold up? Are there certain experiences where being a high-potential leader isn’t an advantage at all? And, are there other experiences where the gap between high potentials and the majority of leaders who are non-high potentials is actually much larger than it should be?

In DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015, conducted in partnership with The Conference Board, we compared the experiences of 3,100 leaders in high-potential pools to those of 2,700 leaders NOT designated by their organizations as high potentials. While we did see several notable differences, in cases high-potential experiences were surprisingly no better.

First, five experiences for which it really was much better to be a high potential. For these, high-potential leaders agreed at a rate much higher than non-high potentials:

 High Potentials Image #1
  1. Having frequent opportunities to provide open feedback to senior leaders about the organization’s strategy and culture.
  2. Obtaining high value from developmental assignments.
  3. Understanding one’s future career path as a leader within the organization.
  4. Having a written and up-to-date development plan in place.
  5. Having received information about the specific behaviors needed to succeed as a leader.

The first two of these—chances to give feedback to senior leaders and getting access to valuable developmental assignments—speak to the visibility and access benefits for high potentials. They get more attention, and this is paying off in more opportunities. However, the next three—understanding one’s career path, having a current development plan, and knowing the skills needed to succeed—raise the question: should the gap really be this big? We know from our research that these experiences are crucial for shaping ALL leaders’ engagement and passion for developing one’s employees. Why should the most basic forms of information on knowing how to become a better leader be limited for all but an organization’s selected few high potentials?

Next, five experiences for which high-potential leaders are almost exactly the same as non-high potentials, with very similar agreement rates between the two groups:

 High Potentials
  1. Having a healthy work-life balance
  2. Receiving effective coaching from internal mentors
  3. Receiving effective coaching from external mentors
  4. Intending to leave the organization within the next 12 months
  5. Prefer interacting with employees over managing tasks for one’s work group

Interestingly, both high potentials and non-high potentials achieve a nearly identical state of work-life balance, even though high-potentials often face a much heavier layer of responsibilities and complexity. Both groups were similarly likely to receive effective coaching from internal and external mentors, surprising since assignment of an internal mentor is a component of many high-potential programs—instead, non-high potentials are equally adept at securing advice from coaches inside and outside of their current company.

Most concerning is intent to leave the company within 12 months. Despite (or perhaps because) they are getting more visibility with senior leaders, and despite having much more clarity about their career and development path—high potentials have intentions to stay which are very similar to those of non-high potentials.

How high-potentials prefer to work with employees is also notable—their preferences for interaction-rich leadership experiences over management activities are just as strong as for non-high potentials. This is vital to keep in mind when designing developmental assignments for high potentials—if these assignments focus more on managerial skills than interpersonal skills—as many assignments do—this may pull high potentials ever further away from how they want to be working with their employees—as interacting leaders. As a result, this can threaten the quality of their growth experience.

For the HR or talent management professional, this research has three implications:

  • First, mind and close the information gap. Some gaps between high-potential leaders and others are acceptable and even desirable—however, some are clearly not. Don’t let key experiences such as having a development plan, understanding one’s career path, and knowing what skills are needed to succeed as a leader be the exclusive domain of high potentials. Instead, see providing this information as a low-investment way to generate more positive experiences for ALL leaders.
  • Create developmental assignments that challenge the interaction skills—not just the management skills—of high potentials. Our research on structured behavioral assessments consistently shows that interaction skills are deficient even up to the executive levels. Don’t contribute to this pattern by letting an overemphasis on high-potential development as a better manager come at the expense of their development as a stronger interacting leader.
  • Don’t assume retention benefits for those “in the pool.” Most high-potential efforts simply aren’t producing their intended (and assumed) returns on improved retention—by not “stopping at the shoulder tap” and by incorporating features such as ongoing measurement and mentoring into your high-potential management programs, you’ll be much more likely to connect with what matters to high potentials, encouraging them to stay.

Just as you can’t understand what makes top performers effective without comparing them to their less successful peers, nor can you gauge the benefits of being in a high-potential pool without contrasting them with their undesignated counterparts. Consider the research and recommended next steps above to make sure you understand and can act on the question, what experiences differ between those swimming in a high-potential pool—and those left on the side of it?

Evan Sinar, Ph.D., is DDI’s Chief Scientist and director of DDI’s Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER).

Get more information about the Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 research, including 18 highly actionable findings about the current state of leadership and high-potential management, an evidence-based roadmap for leadership development, a scoreboard of 20 common talent management practices, and global benchmarks for 11 metrics about leadership talent. Learn more about DDI’s expertise, tools, and points of view on identifying leadership potential.

Posted: 14 Apr, 2015,
Talk to an Expert: The Experiences of High Potentials Differ—But Often in the Wrong Ways
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