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Leaders at your company are

constantly wondering that
about you, whether they own
Are You a High
up to it or not. Here’s how to
get them to answer yes.
by Douglas A. Ready, Jay A. Conger,
and Linda A. Hill

Included with this full-text Harvard Business Review article:

1 Article Summary
Idea in Brief—the core idea

2 Are You a High Potential?

Reprint R1006E
Are You a High Potential?

Idea in Brief
Nearly all companies identify their high-
potential managers. Processes for develop-
ing lists of high potentials vary, but the
rising stars who make the grade are remark-
ably similar in their core characteristics and
behaviors. In a sense, they share a basic

The constitution of a high potential in-

cludes four intangible factors: a drive to
excel, a catalytic learning capability, an
enterprising spirit, and dynamic sensors
that detect opportunities and obstacles.
The best exemplars of the high-potential
profile exhibit all four in spades.

Getting onto a high-potential list is ex-

tremely desirable, but it can demand great
sacrifice. And the consequences of falling
off the rolls after having been given the
honor can be substantial and permanent.

page 1
Leaders at your company are constantly wondering that about you,
whether they own up to it or not. Here’s how to get them to answer yes.

Are You a High

by Douglas A. Ready, Jay A. Conger,
and Linda A. Hill

Some employees are more talented than oth- a dozen of those companies to gain insights
ers. That’s a fact of organizational life that few about the experiences they provide for high
executives and HR managers would dispute. potentials and about the criteria for getting

The more debatable point is how to treat the and staying on the list. Then, guided by input
people who appear to have the highest poten- from HR leaders, we met with and interviewed
tial. Opponents of special treatment argue managers they’d designated as rising stars.
that all employees are talented in some way Our research makes clear that high-potential
and, therefore, all should receive equal oppor- talent lists exist, whether or not companies ac-
tunities for growth. Devoting a disproportion- knowledge them and whether the process for
ate amount of energy and resources to a select developing them is formal or informal. Of the
few, their thinking goes, might cause you to companies we studied, 98% reported that they
overlook the potential contributions of the purposefully identify high potentials. Espe-
many. But the disagreement doesn’t stop cially when resources are constrained, compa-
there. Some executives say that a company’s nies do place disproportionate attention on de-
list of high potentials—and the process for cre- veloping the people they think will lead their
ating it—should be a closely guarded secret. organizations into the future.
After all, why dampen motivation among the So you might be asking yourself, “How do I
roughly 95% of employees who aren’t on the get—and stay—on my company’s high-potential
list? list?” This article can help you begin to answer
For the past 15 to 20 years, we’ve been study- that question. Think of it as a letter to the mil-
ing programs for high-potential leaders. Most lions of smart, competent, hardworking, trust-
recently we surveyed 45 companies worldwide worthy employees who are progressing
about how they identify and develop these through their careers with some degree of sat-
people. We then interviewed HR executives at isfaction but are still wondering how to get

harvard business review • june 2010 page 2

Are You a High Potential?

where they really want to go. We’ll look at the heard of her, and she knew little about bank-
specific qualities of managers whose firms ing. What’s more, she’d been forced on the re-
identified them as having made the grade. gional president, who wanted someone with
experience. Her biggest challenge was to gain
The Anatomy of a High Potential credibility. The German staff was accustomed
Let’s begin with our definition of a high-potential to running its own show, so Jackie figured she’d
employee. Your company may have a different fail if she couldn’t get the team on her side.
definition or might not even officially distin- Jackie resolved to make helping her new col-
guish high potentials from other employees. leagues a priority. In her first three weeks, she
However, our research has shown that compa- met with dozens of managers and openly ac-
nies tend to think of the top 3% to 5% of their knowledged that she faced a steep learning
talent in these terms: curve. She also focused on achieving small
“High potentials consistently and signifi- wins on issues that had long been thorns in
cantly outperform their peer groups in a vari- their sides. For example, she went out of her
ety of settings and circumstances. While way to streamline the process for opening new
achieving these superior levels of performance, accounts. As for her skeptical boss, she aimed
they exhibit behaviors that reflect their compa- to take as much off his plate as possible. She
nies’ culture and values in an exemplary man- would ask, “What time-consuming tasks would
ner. Moreover, they show a strong capacity to you like to see addressed within 90 days?”
grow and succeed throughout their careers Then she’d get right to work. For instance, he
within an organization—more quickly and ef- disliked confrontation, so Jackie tackled issues
fectively than their peer groups do.” with potential for conflict, such as redesigning
That's the basic anatomy of a high potential. planning processes and resolving decision
Gaining membership in this elite group starts rights. She gained a reputation as a problem
with three essential elements. solver, and her influence grew steadily. Today,
Deliver strong results—credibly. Making Jackie is the head of all commercial lending for
your numbers is important, but it isn’t enough. the bank and is still considered a rising star.
You’ll never get on a high-potential list if you Master new types of expertise. Early in
don’t perform with distinction or if your results your career, getting noticed is all about mas-
come at the expense of someone else. Compe- tering the technical expertise that the job re-
tence is the baseline quality for high perfor- quires. As you progress, you need to broaden
mance. But you also need to prove your credibil- that expertise. You start by managing an em-
ity. That means building trust and confidence ployee or a small group, and then move on to
among your colleagues and, thereby, influencing larger teams and positions (for instance, at cor-
a wide array of stakeholders. porate headquarters) that require you to exer-
Look at Jackie Goodwin, a bank executive cise influence despite having limited formal
cited by her HR department as a high poten- authority. For example, in senior roles techni-
tial. Jackie started out in the insurance division cal excellence might fade in value relative to
but wanted to switch to banking, which she strategic-thinking and motivational skills. At a
Douglas A. Ready (dready@icedr.org) perceived as a career path with more room for certain point, you will face the challenge of let-
is a visiting professor of organizational growth. Her general management skills were ting go as much as the challenge of adding on.
behavior at London Business School highly regarded, and she had a proven track Don’t aspire, for example, to be the best engi-
and the founder and president of record in financial services within insurance. neer and the best design team leader at the
ICEDR, a global talent-management The banking side’s desire for new blood and a same time.
research center in Lexington, Massa- lack of succession planning in the region posi- For some, such lessons are learned the hard
chusetts. Jay A. Conger is the Henry tioned her well as an outsider. Indeed, her way. One exceptionally talented software engi-
R. Kravis Research Professor in Leader- record was as strong—if not stronger—than neer, whom we’ll call Luke, had won many ac-
ship Studies at Claremont McKenna that of the insiders. colades during a relatively short career. Confi-
College and a visiting professor of When Jackie was offered a stretch assign- dent in his potential, Luke’s managers put him
organizational behavior at London ment in the banking division—a promotion to in charge of a team that was creating a product
Business School. Linda A. Hill is the vice president and regional operating officer in extension expected to attract a whole new cate-
Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Germany, the bank’s second largest European gory of users. Luke was well liked and happily
Business Administration at Harvard operation—she accepted it, even though the took on the challenge, but he failed to recog-
Business School. odds were against her. Nobody there had nize that technical skill alone wouldn’t suffice.

harvard business review • june 2010 page 3

Are You a High Potential?

After several missed deadlines, company exec- tering cooperative relationships and team-
utives created a face-saving, senior-level “ex- work. Highly trustworthy, he could engage
pert” post for him. Meanwhile, they put an- people in very candid conversations about
other technically skilled employee, who also business challenges. As a result, he was able to
had project-management expertise, in charge. get to the core of a problem quickly and find
Luke, no longer a high potential, went on to viable solutions. Phil not only was superb at
have a fairly distinguished career as a technical motivating people, but also had a keen eye for
expert, but not in an enterprise leadership role. patterns and an impressive strategic vision. He
Recognize that behavior counts. Although applied all those skills to the new assignment.
your performance gets you noticed and pro- Within the first year in his new role, Phil led
moted early in your career, your behavior is his team to grow product sales by 30%. In our
what keeps you on the radar as a high poten- interview with the company’s HR executive, she
tial. Outstanding skills never really diminish in emphasized Phil’s ability to win people over:
importance, but they become a given as you “There is humility to him despite the fact that
are expected to excel in roles with broader he is now the public face of the brand. Phil
reach. Prospective candidates for that coveted helps his peers succeed rather than threatening
high-potential label must demonstrate a be- them. He is a role model for the organization.”
havioral shift from “fit and affiliation” to “role
Half of survey model and teacher.” How High Potentials Are Hardwired
The rise of general manager Phil Nolan to You’re doing everything right. You’re deliver-
respondents said their the executive ranks of his company, a market ing value and early results. You’re mastering
leader in laundry products, was due in large new areas of expertise as you face increasingly
top teams spend less
part to his role-model qualities. Phil was placed complex challenges. You embrace your organi-
than 10% of their time in charge of the firm’s troubled core product, a zation’s culture and values. You exude confi-
liquid detergent whose sales were in a multi- dence and have earned the respect of others.
developing high- year downward slide. Two high-visibility mar- Maybe you’re regularly putting in a 50-hour
potential leaders. keting managers had each been given a chance week and getting excellent reviews. Neverthe-
to reinvigorate product sales. Both had tried less, high-potential status remains elusive.
price-reduction tactics, to no avail. Then it was This can be infuriating because the real dif-
Phil’s turn. But, with a background in product ferentiators—what we call the “X factors”—
development rather than marketing, he was are somewhat intangible and usually don’t
the dark horse candidate. show up on lists of leadership competencies
Fortunately, corporate executives saw more or on performance review forms. Here are
in Phil, who had engineered a turnaround at a those factors, which can tip the scales and
troubled product-development group by fos- help you achieve and maintain that coveted

Should You Tell Her She’s a High Potential?

Whether or not a company should make its list of Nevertheless, making your list of high poten-
high potentials transparent is an evergreen ques- tials transparent increases the pressure to do
tion. In our surveys of 45 company policies and in something with the people who are on it. If you
our work with firms during the past 15 to 20 tell someone you view her as a future leader, you
years, we have found a growing trend toward need to back that up with tangible progress in her
transparency. The percentage of companies that professional development. Otherwise, she may
inform high potentials of their status has risen feel manipulated and even lose motivation. In one
from 70% about a decade ago to 85% today. Em- case, we witnessed a near riot at a company off-
ployers, we believe, are coming to see talent as a site, where a group of high potentials said they felt
strategic resource that, like other types of capital, “played”—that their status was just a retention
can move around. Executives are tired of exit in- tactic, with no real plans to promote them. Either
terviews in which promising employees say, “If I approach has risks: If you don’t make the list pub-
had known you had plans for me and were seri- lic, you might lose your best performers; if you opt
ous about following through, I would have for transparency, you’ll heighten the expectation of
stayed.” action.

harvard business review • june 2010 page 4

Are You a High Potential?

high-potential rating. They have a feel for timing, an ability to

X Factor #1: A drive to excel. High potentials quickly read situations, and a nose for opportu-
aren’t just high achievers. They are driven to nity. Their enterprising spirit might otherwise
succeed. Good, even very good, isn’t good lead them to make foolish decisions, but these
enough. Not by any stretch. They are more sensors help them decide, for example, when
than willing to go that extra mile and realize to pursue something and when to pull back.
they may have to make sacrifices in their per- High potentials have a knack for being in the
sonal lives in order to advance. That doesn’t right place at the right time.
mean they aren’t true to their values, but
sheer ambition may lead them to make some Anatomy of an X Factor Exemplar
pretty hard choices. One of the many high potentials we met was
X Factor #2: A catalytic learning capability. Vineet Kapoor, described as a rising star by his
93% of survey We often think of high potentials as relentless bosses at Swiss medical device company Syn-
learners, but a lot of people out there learn thes. This more than $3 billion business manu-
respondents said that continually yet lack an action or results orien- factures and markets implants and biomateri-
tation. The high potentials we have come als used in surgery and regeneration of the
high potentials get
across possess what we call a “catalytic learn- skeleton and soft tissues.
promoted faster than ing capability.” They have the capacity to scan In school, long before ending up at Synthes,
for new ideas, the cognitive capability to ab- Vineet intended to pursue science and had a
other employees do. sorb them, and the common sense to translate passion for improving the lives of people in
Self-fulfilling prophecy that new learning into productive action for emerging economies such as India. That basic
their customers and their organizations. vision remained with him, but his career took
or great selection? X Factor #3: An enterprising spirit. High po- an unexpected path. After college, to the sur-
tentials are always searching for productive prise of his peers, he chose accounting in order
ways to blaze new paths. They are explorers to gain financial expertise that would serve
and, as such, take on the challenges of leaving him well in any business career. He accepted a
their career comfort zones periodically in position with Indian professional services firm
order to advance. It might mean a risky A.F. Ferguson, which had a leading portfolio of
move—a tricky international assignment, for audit clients (it was eventually acquired by De-
instance, or a cross-unit shift that demands an loitte in 2004). He then moved to Arthur
entirely new set of skills. Given high poten- Andersen (which merged with Ernst & Young)
tials’ drive to succeed, you might think they’d and eventually to KPMG in Gurgaon, India,
be reluctant to take such a chance. But most where his then-boss was charged with leading
seem to find that the advantages—the excite- the India practice. This move initially meant a
ment and opportunity—outweigh the risks. pay cut for Vineet, but also another chance to
X Factor #4: Dynamic sensors. Being driven learn about building a business.
to excel and having an enterprising spirit, com- Vineet recounted other intriguing opportu-
bined with the urge to find new approaches, nities that had opened up during his consult-
Anatomy of a could actually become a recipe for career di- ing career, when the Sarbanes–Oxley Act be-
High Potential saster. High potentials can get derailed for a
number of reasons. They may, for instance, be
came law in the U.S. in 2002. Clients were
banging down his door. Although compliance
High potentials always deliver tempted to impulsively accept what seems like work promised handsome compensation, it
strong results, master new types a hot opportunity, only to find that it’s a break didn’t match his priorities of learning and ef-
of expertise, and recognize that (not a stretch) assignment or that there’s no fecting large-scale positive change in emerging
behavior counts. But it’s their intan- long-term career payoff. Another possibility of economies. So Vineet moved to Synthes,
gible X factors that truly distinguish derailment comes from a desire to please. where his X factors were evident in spades.
them from the pack. High potentials may avoid open disagreement A drive to excel. A drive to succeed can,
with the boss or resist giving honest, poten- well, drive some people to the brink. The key
The Four X Factors of High
tially disappointing feedback to a peer. Suc- is to channel the instinct. So, for instance,
cessful high potentials have well-tuned radar Vineet decided he should always think like
1. Drive to excel
that puts a higher premium on quality results. people one level above him. That meant ask-
2. Catalytic learning capability Beyond judgment, high potentials possess ing many questions—sometimes to the con-
3. Enterprising spirit what we call “dynamic sensors,” which enable sternation of his peers and bosses—but he bal-
4. Dynamic sensors them to skirt these risks, even if just barely. anced his incessant questioning with an

harvard business review • june 2010 page 5

Are You a High Potential?

insatiable desire to deliver. Nobody could ness and having P&L responsibility; the new
doubt his commitment to the work and the job meant playing a support role and getting
company, and Vineet’s ambition was not a things done through influence instead of di-
matter of personal triumph. In fact, as country rect control.
manager for India he created a 150-page book Dynamic sensors. High potentials may be
celebrating the contributions of his colleagues resented and envied as well as admired—all of
and highlighting their common values. It be- which can be a source of stress. A true high po-
came something of a textbook for the Indian tential understands this and strives to reduce
operation at Synthes, and employees found it animosity. Vineet certainly cared about how he
illuminating. Indeed, it generated so much was perceived. When he was first offered the
buzz that some employees who had left the country manager lead for India, at age 29, he
company actually returned because the orga- considered turning it down because he thought
nization had been energized by it. others might see him as too young or inexperi-
Vineet was not driven primarily by a wish to enced. That awareness of others’ perceptions is
get ahead. His original aspiration was what fu- a defining attribute of a high potential.
eled him. To that end he wrote an 85-page
business plan that included a vision for bring- Developing Your X Factors
ing world-class education to all Indian sur- The X factors of high potentials not only don’t
geons, including those in remote areas. Syn- show up in leadership competency models,
thes’s CEO has said that the plan changed how but also are difficult to teach and learn, partic-
the company looked at India. ularly in a classroom setting. Nevertheless,
A catalytic learning capability. When Vineet you can boost your odds of developing your X
traveled to the United States for a Synthes factors.
You’re doing everything strategy meeting, he stayed on longer to be a Becoming aware of where you’re falling
“fly on the wall” with the U.S. salespeople. short is the first step. For instance, if you find
right. You’re delivering During his stay, Vineet went with them on yourself repeatedly getting blindsided by
dozens of sales calls. Having gotten the CEO’s events, chances are your dynamic sensors
value and early results. attention with his growth strategy, Vineet aren’t very strong. Some people are more at-
But high-potential thought the company would be able to exe- tuned to their environment than others, but
cute it only with the help of more and differ- you can learn to improve your radar by taking
status remains elusive. ent employees. He took what he’d learned simple measures such as listening to others
Developing your X from the U.S. sales staff to create a new sales- more carefully, observing their reactions to
person competency profile for India—one what you say, and refreshing your network of
factors puts it in reach. that highlighted entrepreneurship, an at- relationships so that it better attunes you to
tribute he thought would be crucial for deliv- the new businesses and markets your company
ering on the promise of the Indian market. is pursuing.
An enterprising spirit. For Vineet, one of Catalytic learning requires an interest in act-
the toughest aspects of career growth was ing, not just learning. Learning without actu-
leaving his comfort zone, both professionally ally changing your behavior is an opportunity
and personally. He turned down several op- wasted. It may be difficult to develop more
portunities, including one that would have re- drive or an enterprising spirit, but with reflec-
quired relocating to the United States. But he tion you can begin to be more proactive or
eventually took a post as director of strategic take a few more risks. This all speaks to the im-
initiatives for the Asia Pacific region, a move portance of investing time and energy in self-
that forced him to leave India for Singapore. reflection. You must also recognize the value of
To prepare himself, Vineet agreed to a year of seeking advice from a coach or mentor—and
global rotation, spending part of his time in of figuring out where an adviser’s help ends
the U.S. corporate office and the rest in the Eu- and your independence begins.
ropean headquarters in Switzerland. He had
to adapt his personal style and develop new High-Potential Status Has Its
strategies. He knew how to lead a team as a Downsides
country manager, but supporting other coun- It’s great to be recognized for what you can do
try managers in achieving their visions was and how you might contribute to your com-
daunting. Vineet loved running his own busi- pany’s future, but high-potential status comes

harvard business review • june 2010 page 6

Are You a High Potential?

Three C’s for CEOs and HR Professionals

As you cultivate your pipeline of high potentials, follow these principles:

Be Clear
with your people about the skills and behaviors that your organization needs for the future—and
about why these characteristics will matter.

Be Consistent
in how you develop talent. Avoid adopting a “development for all” mentality when times are good but
then making deep cuts when times are tight.

Be Creative
about the next generation. That marketing manager from Shanghai who doesn’t quite fit your mold
might be just the talent you need to win in the future.

at a price. For starters, there’s no tenure. Peo- payout. She directed the project from a techni-
ple can—and do—fall off the list, and some re- cal standpoint, but her career essentially
move themselves voluntarily or by default be- stalled.
cause they don’t have the time or the passion Being singled out for extra developmental
for the journey. Virtually all companies we attention also can entail sacrifices in your per-
surveyed indicated that remaining a high po- sonal life. Some people love to change jobs of-
tential is not guaranteed, and we found that ten, but for others that creates an enormous
anywhere from 5% to 20% drop off the rolls amount of stress, not to mention tough family-
each year, whether by choice or not. related and other choices. People’s expecta-
Among the reasons for losing a spot on the tions of you are high, and colleagues who
high-potential list are making a poor transition aren’t on the list may secretly, perhaps uncon-
into a new role, diminished performance two sciously, want you to falter, or even resent you
years in a row, behavior that’s out of line with enough to hope you fall from grace.
the company’s culture and values, and a signifi-
cant visible failure. A dramatic fall from grace Getting on a high-potential list can be a signifi-
that stands out in our research involved an ex- cant growth opportunity, so it’s not our inten-
ecutive, whom we’ll call Marta, who was in tion to discourage great managers from aiming
line for the position of chief technology officer for it. However, you need to figure out not just
at a leading financial services firm. how to get on the list, but why you want to in
Marta was an extremely bright high-potential the first place. And that means soul-searching.
manager with superb technical skills. But she Are you ready for high-potential status? Is it
let her smarts get in the way. She didn’t want what you really want? If so, the rewards of ob-
to “waste her time” talking with other senior taining it can be huge; if not, then focus on
stakeholders whose clients needed new tech- your passions in other ways. Whatever your
nology applications. She “knew the right an- answer, don’t forget: Performance always
swer” regardless of whether it met clients’ counts; your behavior matters more and more
needs and expectations. Her dynamic sensors as you grow; and those X factors are your se-
and catalytic learning capability were no- cret weapons.
where to be found. She was intelligent but not
wise, and every effort at coaching her failed. Reprint R1006E
Marta was too valuable to be fired, but she was To order, call 800-988-0886 or 617-783-7500
removed from the succession track, which in or go to www.hbr.org
the end cost her a possible multimillion-dollar

harvard business review • june 2010 page 7