E. S. Soon | Conversations on High Potential #1 – Learning Agility

Conversations on High Potential #1 – Learning Agility

This series captures many of the conversations I’ve had with managers and employees on the topic of high potential or key talent. Talent management has created a lot of buzz in the last few decades, but to a large extent, most ordinary employees remained pretty oblivious about what goes into it and why it matters to them. High Potentials, commonly known as HiPos by HR professionals, simply put, are considered employees who are more talented or having more potential than the rest of their peers. Now, if the previous sentence put you on the defensive, read on.

I want to share, hopefully in a no holds barred manner, what get discussed behind the scene during a “talent review meeting”, who get selected for a “fast-track” career, and perhaps more importantly, how do you get noticed and selected as a HiPo in your organization? 

Note that HiPo is the short form for High Potential, not to be mistaken with hippo, which is the short form for Hippopotamus, a large herbivorous mammal largely found in sub-Saharan Africa.

The No. 1 Characteristic of a High Potential 

John hires a lot of extremely smart and highly productive individuals into his sales organization. From the junior associates right up to the vice presidents, he has one of the most admired teams in the industry. And for that reason, very often, his competitors would work their ways to porch his staff and lure them over with bigger job titles, more pay, more autonomy, or whatever that work.

Managing a team of highly smart individuals can be rewarding, yet, challenging. John’s HR manager has asked him to “force rank” his team. The gap between his most productive and least productive producer is really quite marginal. In an off-the-record conversation, he was not convinced if the good old performance ranking system would suit his business needs, but he knew he had to toe the line and performed the exercise. “Why demotivate someone, whom we have invested so much in hiring and grooming in the first place?” He asked me. The HR manager had also asked John to fill up a 9-Box talent review matrix. On the y-axis of the matrix, is the person’s potential from a scale of low to high. On the x-axis, is the person’s performance, also from a scale of low to high. John’s task, is to plot the 9-box with his team members. The assumption is a few of his team would end up in the high performer-high potential box, some would be in the mid-potential-high performer box, and so and so forth.

John jokingly told me, “Well, it looks like most of my folks are going to end up in the same box! That is, the “high potential-high performance” box!”

So what separates the best from the rest? Is there such a yardstick or measurement? Anything about human potential we can argue that it’s going to be a highly subjective conversation. Subjectivity aside, what do senior management look for?

Every organization would have its own criteria, but here I’d like to single out something more interesting. The creators of the Leadership Architect by Lominger, Robert Eichinger, Michael Lombardo, and Cara C Raymond, a popular talent assessment tool used in many of the top brands and firms, argue that the key characteristic to watch for a talent, is learning agility. The ability to adjust, adapt, and respond to, and be resourceful in the face of change. They argue that regardless of how intelligent or technically skilled you are, the best way to increase your “talent effectiveness” is to improve your learning agility.

Among the various things management look out for (and mind you some talent assessments are completely dysfunctional!), being agile as an important attribute for leadership is something I would rather concur. In today’s context, where change is rapid and complex, and disruptive business models threaten traditional businesses, agile employees is an asset.

One of the most unforgettable lines my financial planner has told me when I made a loss in my investments, was that “past performance of the fund does not guarantee future performance!”

Many would argue past performance is a good yardstick to determine future performance because people tend to perform the same way. Why would companies keep promoting great performers into leadership positions? And why would they buy into talents with a great track record in the past? Why would we scrutinize on a job candidate’s past performances in in school, at work, and in various forms of settings. I think the key lies in although past performance may not necessarily “guarantee” future success, it provides a strong base line for good performance.

To get from good to great, however, something more than just great past performance has to take place. This is where learning agility plays a crucial role. People with a high learning agility, the ability to unlearn, relearn and then apply their skills and experience in any new setting, have a higher probability of taking on the unknown, the new settings, and achieving breakthroughs. If you are the CEO of your company, and you have several high performance executives, whom would you rather put in charge of product development or send to expand a new market? You would probably “bet” on the ones with the most “potential” to succeed. How do you identify that “potential”? To John, perhaps the 9-box assessment tool seems a little too limiting. The key question he has to consider, however, is what is defined as “potential”.

If you are one of John’s employees, developing yourself to be more agile is really not a bad idea at all. Humans are creatures of habits. We have the tendency to stick to “what worked”, what makes our routine, and what makes us comfortable. So even high performers have routines and habits that help to keep performance high. Being agile, however, requires a little bit of change in strategies in the way one does things, in order to break away from the routine and habit. And change requires risk taking.

The good news, according to neuroscientists, is our brains are fully capable of creating new wiring. We are as adaptable as we like to stick to our habits. We, therefore, can learn to be more agile, if we want to. If you think about a tight and small rubber band, with constant and reasonable pulls and stretches, without snapping it of course, can be expanded in size.  I believe our “range of agility” can be expanded.

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