Critical Factors in Identifying and Developing High-Potential Leaders

Following its highly publicized usage at GE under CEO Jack Welch in the 1990s, the 9-Box model became a nearly universal standard for identifying high-potential leaders (Hipos).

But the model doesn’t provide guidance on how to define “high potential” in the first place—and many organizations struggle to differentiate genuine Hipos from those who merely have a track record of strong performance.

As noted in the Harvard Business Review, only about 30% of high-performing leaders have significant advancement potential—which means 70% do not. Therefore, a track record of high performance is a necessary, but not sufficient, factor in determining advancement potential.

While Hipos possess many of the same attributes as top performers who are not Hipos, such as communication skills and teamwork, these three factors can help you differentiate between genuine Hipos and top performers with limited advancement potential:

Resourcefulness: When facing non-routine obstacles, Hipos are able to quickly overcome them and find a way forward—they rarely get “stuck.”

Leader GPS: Hipos are able to navigate a much larger landscape in their approach to work. They have an intense outside-in perspective, such as being aware of external best practices and major trends in their industry, and they think cross-functionally. By contrast, many top performers who are not Hipos are more internally focused and think mostly within their functional silo.

Proactivity: Hipos think beyond their immediate circumstances by anticipating potential issues and opportunities much further into the future than top performers who are not Hipos. To paraphrase the late Stephen Covey, they focus on both the urgent and the important.

Once you’ve identified your organization’s Hipos, what’s the best way to develop them? Substantial evidence suggests that on-the-job experiences which get leaders outside their comfort zones provide better development than other approaches such as workshops, training programs and executive education programs.

However, these on-the-job experiences need to be planned, and the leader needs to internalize lessons learned by reflecting on their actions and seeking feedback. Effective methods include keeping a personal journal, participating in a 360-degree feedback assessment every year or two and identifying specific on-the-job developmental experiences based on that feedback, and working with an executive coach who understands the principles of individual “action learning.”

Because these methods achieve proven results in an accelerated timeframe, they’re the ideal vehicle for Hipo development.

Stephen Hrop, PhD., is vice president of organizational development services at talent management firm Caliper. He has more than 20 years of experience in corporate and consulting settings, including extensive work with C-level executives and their teams.

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