‘The Saddest Thing in Life is Wasted Talent’

This month we’re talking about talent, or more specifically high potential talent, as we focus on the truism ‘the saddest thing in life is wasted talent’. There are many sad things in life, but in the context of organizational management, wasting a resource as precious as potential talent feels particularly careless. First, let’s step back and consider what the term “high potential” really means and why it has a loaded connotation for both individuals and organizations. A quick Google search will show you articles that run the gamut from advising on how organizations can identify and retain high potential employees, to articles saying that organizations do a terrible job at both of those activities… all while employees try to figure out if they are even in that category. Our blogs this month are going to tackle these questions from a variety of angles (including whether the term “high potential” is even the best one to use), but let’s wade into the conversation gradually.

An influential Harvard Business Review article from back in 2010 defined a high potential employee as being in the top 3-5% of an organization’s workforce and “consistently and significantly outperform their peer groups in a variety of settings and circumstances. While achieving these superior levels of performance, they exhibit behaviors that reflect their companies’ culture and values in an exemplary manner. Moreover, they show a strong capacity to grow and succeed throughout their careers within an organization—more quickly and effectively than their peer groups do.[1]Whether you like the term or not, or its frequent abbreviation to HiPo, having employees with a lot of potential to perform well, live the organization’s values, and generate results is clearly an exciting proposition for most organizations. Moreover, who wouldn’t want to be labeled a HiPo (putting aside the obvious comparison to a very large, reputedly aggressive, semiaquatic mammal)? Let’s go a little deeper into some of the foundational concepts related to high potential and better understand what makes this conversation so complex.

Labeling– In the world of high potentials, securing this label could mean anything from showing high performance in your current role, completing a formal assessment and participating in a formal leadership development program, or being informally identified and groomed by a seasoned mentor. This is part of the challenge- how organizations identify and develop these people can vary significantly, and organizations may not even choose to inform the employee that they have been labeled as high potential. There are strong arguments for and against using the term openly with employees (a topic we’ll explore more fully later in the month), but at its essence, being a high potential employee generally means that your organization thinks you have value, are worth watching, and may be willing to invest in your development. Regardless of whether a formal label is put on the additional care and feeding you may receive, getting feedback and reinforcement that the organization sees and values your potential is critical to keeping you motivated.

Identifying– Organizations generally hate wasting resources, so determining how to identify, cultivate, and activate talent is (or should be) of pressing concern. In order to identify potential talent, an organization must first figure out what criteria drive successful performance at the company. This means looking beyond current performance (because past performance doesn’t always predict future performance in a new and different role) and defining characteristics that will generate results for the organization in future roles. These can be willingness to learn, resiliency, motivation, emotional intelligence (learn more about that here!), and cultural fit, for example. 

Regardless of the specific characteristics that the organization selects, perhaps the most important factor is inclusivity- that all individuals are fairly considered. Without a process that consistently looks for potential in every corner, the organization could literally be overlooking and leaving valuable resources untapped. There are many ways to identify HiPos in the wild, ranging from formal assessments (personality, skill, leadership), to nominations (self, peer, management), or performance-based indicators. Depending on the characteristics for which you’re selecting and the results you want to obtain, identifying HiPos can look different across organizations, which is why organizations don’t always get this right.

Growing– Once HiPos are identified, the concerns shift to what to do with them, how to keep them engaged and motivated, how to retain them, and most importantly, how to measure the success of this process. Some effective ways organizations engage their HiPos are through formal cohort programs, individualized coaching, job shadowing, mentoring, continuing education support, rotational and stretch assignments, and other methods that align with the organization’s succession planning process. While there may be some consistent developmental activities from which all HiPos would benefit (e.g., leadership development programs), the investments made in their development should be tailored to their needs and the organization’s requirements. 

Tailoring the development opportunities, providing a clear and transparent process that engages the individual and the organization as equal partners, and clear and consistent communication and feedback are all critical to ensuring that the investment yields results. That can be challenging: mapping out an individual’s development alongside the organization’s needs requires a lot of intentional planning. Developing a HiPo to their next career level, only to find that business needs have changed or existing leaders aren’t ready to retire can create frustrating roadblocks. Creating development opportunities that allow for growth in multiple directions provides greater flexibility for the organization, and HiPos gain a greater breadth of skills and experiences. Conversely, as an individual grows personally and professionally, they may determine that their organization isn’t their best fit. Although those situations are regrettable for both sides, they can result in mutual gratitude and future relationships.

Clearly, this is a rich topic that opens the door for a lot more conversation and will keep us exploring different perspectives for the rest of the month. If you want to be part of the conversation or have a question about any of the ideas introduced, please reach out to us at BD@fmpconsulting.com. And, if you haven’t already, subscribe so that you can get the next part of this conversation delivered directly to you!


[1]Ready, D., Conger, J., & Hill, L. (June 2010). Are You a High Potential? Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2010/06/are-you-a-high-potential