Are "High Potential" Programs an Anachronism?
Has your company labeled you a “high potential?” Do you know? Do you care?
There’s a debate growing among human resource professionals on the usefulness of “hi-po” programs. In theory, the idea of singling individuals out for this label allows companies to focus their development resources and plum opportunities where they will have the greatest return — on people who have the capacity to grow into higher levels of leadership (typically, hierarchical leadership) in the company.
In some European companies, the word “talent” is used in a similar way. The “talent” are those singled out for special investment.
As the nature of our work and the workforce evolves, I have two concerns about these hi-po or talent programs.
Perhaps most important, we need to recognize that individuals have the potential to grow in multiple dimensions — and not all paths do or should lead “up.” Our organizations are flatter and our workforce is increasingly filled with older individuals. Few companies have true pyramids anymore. A few years ago, my colleagues and I wrote an HBR article describing the phenomenon of “middlescence” — the malaise we found among many 40-plus year-old workers who were no longer feeling challenged by their work or valued by their employer. Upping the development opportunities offered to these individuals was one of our major recommendations to help this enormously important segment of the employee population regain the engagement that is essential for outstanding performance.
Concurrently, the locus of leadership is changing. I coach senior executives that their primary responsibility today is to create the context that allows others to innovate, collaborate — to lead. The notion that leadership is concentrated among a few decision-makers sitting at the top of a hierarchy is seriously outdated. We need leaders throughout the organization, at every level, who are capable and encouraged to exercise initiative.
And the popularity of what I call “lateral career paths” is growing. Many employees enjoy the opportunity to move sideways, into new departments, learning new skills, for some, trying out new geographies, taking on different challenges that may or may not be “higher up” than the one they previously mastered. These sorts of moves are valued by many Gen Y’s because they keep the sense of immediate challenge, exploration and figuring things out — all things Y’s enjoy — fresh. And this type of career path meets one of Gen X’s major goals — increasing the individual’s breadth of skills and reducing the sense of being boxed into one, potentially-vulnerable corner of the corporation.
Singling out a few people for development doesn’t work for corporations because the practice doesn’t recognize the shifting nature of its employee population, the work being done, and the future leadership needs.
And as the target for hi-po programs shifts to members of Gen X or Gen Y, I find these programs don’t do much for the people selected either. Being labeled “high potential” works with Boomers. We may not like it, but the truth is, if we’re selected, it’s one more sign that we’re winning in our over-populated, competitive world. And if we’re not, it’s a powerful incentive to try harder next year.
But all this competitive ranking and rating falls flat with many X’ers and Y’s. It’s not even that they don’t like it — they don’t get it. It doesn’t seem relevant. For many, it assumes a set of career goals and a path to get there that they don’t necessarily share.
I suspect that we need to re-think the role of high-potential programs over the next several years and create approaches that are a better fit with our companies’ needs — and the values of an important component of the workforce today.
Read the original here, by Tammy Erickson @ Harvard Business Publishing