Having completed university in just one year, Napoleon Bonaparte (IQ 145) commanded his first army at the age of 27. By 30, he had captured Austria, Spain and Egypt. A more classic example of a ‘high potential’ would be hard to find. Sadly for Napoleon, the French state did not seemingly employ an enlightened HR director to keep his ambitions in check.
While Napoleon’s example is tongue-in-cheek, the management of high-potential individuals should be a serious concern. To those who say: ‘High potentials don’t exist at our company – we are all equal’, the only reply is that they seemingly don’t think they will need any senior managers in 10 years’ time.
At Hudson’s European Talent Management research centre, we have been studying for some years now the varying organisational strategies developed to deal with high potentials. This research has thrown up three key areas of findings: why high potentials are more important than ever, how to spot them and, most importantly, how to keep them.
So why are high potentials more important than ever? The answer is largely due to demographics – by 2010, 47% of the European working population will be aged 55 or older. The result will be that the option of buying in management superstars will become an expensive business. Taking the time and effort to develop one’s own superstars will not just be a more attractive option but a commercial necessity.
But how to identify these high potentials? An important concept to grasp is not to assume there is a magical set of generic qualities that define high potentials that remains constant over time. Remember, before you can become a general, you have to learn to ride the horse and handle a sword.
Instead, we advise that organisations spot high potentials on three basic criteria: learning ability, emotional intelligence and intellectual intelligence. Benchmarking on these criteria against an organisational norm by age range will be far more productive than trying to pick out from the crowd those who most resemble your organisation’s current chief executive.
With the high performers identified, a tricky situation presents itself: should they be told and should the rest of the organisation be told? As a rule nowadays, a secret list is clutched firmly by the HR department and only the most senior in the company are allowed to view it. However, a recent Hudson study revealed that allocating a high-potential label has a positive effect on the professional satisfaction of employees. The label is regarded as a proof of the faith and engagement of the company in their development. Another barrier that a lot of organisations face when considering establishing a high-potential programme is the fear that remuneration costs will be extreme. Our research has shown this could not be further from the truth. What high potentials crave is opportunity for development and a work environment that stretches them to their limits. Rapid promotion and high salaries can seem the obvious retention strategy. But a more balanced approach, featuring additional projects unrelated to the employees’ day-to-day role, will give the high potential a truer sense of the esteem in which the organisation holds them.
Beware the fall
Last, but most importantly, organisations must learn to embrace the inevitable derailment of high potentials. HR and line managers have important roles to play here and should be briefed to keep a careful watch, but we have found that the greatest help to high potentials is providing them with a mentor. Admitting failure can be hard for high potentials, especially to immediate superiors to whom they might feel they are under constant need to impress. A mentor can offer a vital avenue for introspection and reinvention.
Who knows, perhaps with a good mentor by his side, young Napoleon may never have been defeated. By taking these steps, HR directors can avoid fighting their own Waterloo.