Vaya Insights
In the wake of the NFL draft, it’s worth asking: What are the three marks of “high- potential” talent?

By Rob Kjar, Ph.D.,
Senior Managing Consultant, Vaya Group

I love watching the NFL draft. The greatest college athletes line up to join the professional ranks where their raw talent will be put to the test. It is the epitome of a pressure cooker – the greatest example of a talent review with very, very, tangible outcomes.

I have been working closely with so-called “hi-po” leaders for more than 15 years, and the draft and some recent conversations with executives around talent reviews brought me back to some fundamental questions. Once, when I was working with a group of 20 or so anointed hi-po leaders in a leading multi-national heavy equipment manufacturer, I was asked, "What is a hi-po?" I’ve repeated this answer many times since, and in many talent reviews inside organizations and consulting with many others. A hi-po has three noticeable traits that distinguish them from other talent:

  • They have big game – in other words, they have acquired the technical knowledge to be a master of their craft, and beyond that they know the business. They have an in-depth knowledge of how the business makes money, what the drivers of growth are, and what the value chain that drives revenue is. Other executives I’ve shared this with say it is table stakes, and I agree. Make sure leaders have a broad understanding of the business, and not a siloed vertical understanding of it.

How do you develop them if they don’t have it?

Give them experiences outside of their functional areas, increase their decision authority, give them a P&L to manage or a transformation project to lead. If they have spent their career in the field, let them do a turn at corporate. Ask them to lead a global project, take over a struggling team or reorganize a stagnant one. In these cases, your top talent are likely to thrive and repay the minor investment you are making in them.

  • They claim their space – it’s often called executive presence, as if there were one definition. In reality, there are many ways top talent exert influence. Some learned how to speak with authority, while others learned to leverage silence and a well-placed question to incite deeper thinking and better problem-solving. Great leaders influence others to act, and that happens outside of their direct reports, or their peers – it extends outside of their function to other key stakeholders and other executives.

How do you develop them if they don’t have it?

Give them some coaching from someone who can offer specific behavioral guidance, like a tennis coach taking raw talent to the next level. Help leaders learn who they are, and how they influence, so that they can leverage their natural strengths rather than borrowing someone else’s bombast or soft sell and being outed as inauthentic.

  • They act like owners – some say it’s accountability, but this accountability extends beyond their immediate team and their finite set of goals. Acting like an owner, a hi-po leader talks in terms of “our company” and “our results.” They don’t talk about the things that limit their abilities or could create obstacles. They talk in terms of what they are working on to overcome obstacles, remove barriers, create buy-in of senior leaders. They take every dollar spent personally, and they watch out for threats in the marketplace and challenge others to take them seriously.

How do you develop them if they don’t have it?

If you can afford to increase their financial stake in the outcomes of the business – not just their individual bonus – you can see the lights come on. Invite them to send back a questionable business expense. Encourage them – with their teams – to set bold goals and call them out for sandbagging if they are holding back. Share information that they would not normally be privy to and confide in them. Ask them to experiment with new ideas and to replicate best practices to influence others outside of their immediate network. Push them into situations where they get to advocate for the organization, and let employees and clients recognize that the company is putting this key talent in the limelight to further invest in growing a strong leadership bench.

Lastly, a final question that I’ve been asked dozens of times over the years. Do you tell them they are hi-po or not? That’s an easy one for me. What risks do you run by telling a top performer they are a top performer? Don’t they already know it empirically? So by not telling them you are leaving them to guess where they stand. Better it come from you than from a competitor’s headhunter. Keep your hi-pos warm by the fire, treat them like gold, because they really are your future.

Your employees are your greatest strength. Turn their talent into a competitive advantage.
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