In a recent LinkedIn Pulse article, “9 Ways You Can Get Boxed In at Work without Even Knowing It,” I wrote about the 9-Box Model used by companies to identify the high performers and high potentials in their organizations. The article generated some heated debate, with advocates of the 9-Box Model rationalizing that it’s a good tool when used correctly.
For me, the problem is that I’ve never seen it used “correctly.”
In theory, I suppose it makes sense. In practice, however, I haven’t seen this tool be fairly administered or all that helpful in building bench strength, retaining key people or engaging employees. Since so many organizations use it to determine how they will allocate their leadership development investments, why is “leadership development” the number one human capital crisis in Bersin and other studies? Clearly, something is not working.
The word “potential” is where I get hung up… It’s also where others find this to be challenging, too. How can anyone ever objectively and fairly assess potential?
The dictionary definition of “potential” expresses just how vague and conceptual potential is – Possible, as opposed to actual; capable of being or becoming; a latent excellence or ability that may not have been developed; someone or something that is considered a worthwhile possibility.
Making a judgment about someone’s potential is inherently subjective. We’re talking about something that is latent, not actual, possible… How can anyone absolutely determine another’s potential? What’s more, doesn’t every single person have some measure of potential?
In AMA Enterprise’s study, Identifying and Developing High-Potential Talent, the majority of respondents said high-potentials are identified based on performance appraisals (74%) and senior management recommendations (68.5%). However, only 41.6% said they weigh innovative and/or unique contributions to the business; slightly more than one-third said their companies use either or both talent assessments (35.1%) and peer input (34.7%). Only 17.5% reported educational background as a metric.
(Side note: These most-used criteria don’t include demonstration of company values, willingness to take stretch assignments, leadership qualities or other criteria that ought to count for something…)
In other words, the subjective opinion of one or just a few people matters most (and in more places) in whether or not an employee is designated “high potential.”
“Senior executives, managers, directors, and HR and training and development functions need to be on the same page when it comes to participants’ selection criteria or there’s a risk that senior leaders will tap only those rising stars that mirror themselves,” concludes the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in an article titled “Selection Criteria for High-Potentials Vary Widely.”
Bringing in more voices who are “on the same page” regarding criteria seems like a reasonable solution. But it doesn’t work that way. I’ve been a part of these meetings where managers, senior executives and HR folks talk about people. The loudest voice – the one others defer to – is usually the person with the most subjective impression of the individual being assessed.
It goes something like this:
- The “high potential” is described favorably by the manager who sees potential in him or her. The manager gives a glowing review, justifying the high potential status with past performance (e.g. performance reviews, past contributions) and with subjective feelings about the individual.
- Others weigh in with their own anecdotes and impressions about the candidate. If there are some negative impressions, these may trump the manager’s own assessment of “high potential.” Those negative impressions, like the positive ones, are generally based on feelings or personal interaction with the individual. They aren’t related to future potential so much as to past or present encounters.
- A vote is taken, and the “high potential” label is given or not given based on this discussion. That label (good or bad) sticks and, in future years, few can remember why it was determined in the first place. Although this is an annual process, the carryover of “high potential” status provides a tempting shortcut and the list doesn’t change significantly from one year to the next.
When I ask senior executives and others about people who are not on the list, I frequently hear comments like “he’s been disrespectful to some of us” or “she just doesn’t have enough presence.” Ummmm, excuse me, but aren’t those the very sorts of things we could coach people to develop if they have high potential in ways that would matter more?
As if this weren’t problematic enough, these subjective “high potential” designations don’t even serve the purpose they were intended to serve. The idea is to identify high potentials, provide them with development opportunities and retain them for future promotion. Turns out that doesn’t always happen.
“Informal high-potential programs that exist at many companies can be a double-edged sword that undermines their very purpose,” noted the AMA Enterprise Study report. “They don’t enhance a company’s ability to retain its high-potentials, and they threaten to alienate those employees who feel they should be considered.”
This matters. It matters to companies that wasting exorbitant amounts of time on a process that doesn’t work and, in fact, works against them. It matters to people who are tapped (perhaps in ways that elevate them beyond their capabilities and in ways that, long term, hinder them). It matters to people who are capped, often unfairly, because the person assessing their potential couldn’t see it (and probably didn’t look closely enough).
Maybe you’ve seen or experienced something more reasonable when it comes to defining and fairly identifying “high potential.”