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How to Stop High Potential Leader Derailment

It happens more than we’d like: a leader with fabulous potential, an impressive track record and the foundational skills to take him or her straight to the top derails at a critical career juncture. Why?

Sometimes the very things that make someone great can cause problems when it counts the most. Take Alan. Alan is an exceptional leader in numerous ways, and he has been viewed as one of the most talented, highest potential people in his $2 billion pharmaceutical organization for many years.

He’s always wanted to be CEO, but recently the CEO revealed he didn’t think Alan would meet his goal because his peers don’t want to work for him. “Someone who is hard charging, smart and aggressive (like Alan), is much more likely to get great results, but if they don’t learn to temper that to include other people, to get buy-in, to build alignment with other folks, they may alienate people or cause additional friction down the road,” said David Peterson, senior vice president, Personnel Decisions International (PDI).

“If they don’t get good feedback and clear expectations, they can get in trouble.” Peterson said he often sees people promoted early in their career for getting good results because they’re smart. Yet, any individual at a certain level who’s smart can do a great job.

It’s when leaders begin to ascend the higher rungs of the career ladder that the potential for derailment appears. Then it’s not so much the ability to get results that’s most important; it’s working well with others, being able to incite performance in direct reports and teams that becomes most important.

Unfortunately, Peterson said organizations frequently don’t realize they’ve made considerable investments in the wrong person or have neglected to give those same opportunities to a less vocally and visually impressive candidate who could prove important to the organization.

Take Bill, for instance. Bill isn’t quite as smart or as driven as Alan, but he has great, well-rounded management skills. He’s always been a good performer, has always done well and gotten results, but he doesn’t stand out as much. Nor does he create waves.

This high-potential leader actually may have a better chance of ascending to CEO status than Alan. “The issue is, ‘Has the organization systematically groomed several people?'” Peterson said. “It’s basically wasting resources. They’ve really tried to give Alan a lot by way of grooming. They’re giving him a chance to turn things around, but if he doesn’t get this (CEO) job, he’s going to be crushed and disappointed, and he will probably go and get a job somewhere else.

They’ll lose a great talent. Bill has been saying, give me more chances, I can handle it, invest in me, pay more attention to me – they’ve missed opportunities to really invest in him. He’ll be pretty good, but he would have been a fabulous CEO if they had been a more willing to invest in him and think about him as a potential candidate five years ago.”

Accurate understanding of a leader’s strengths and weaknesses early on can signal the right types of development plans talented high-potential leaders need. Peterson said one of the challenges talent managers experience is how best to gather that type of knowledge.

It’s often a case of separating performance from potential. “Most companies promote the people who do the best job. The issue is stepping back to look at, ‘What is potential and how do I identify it?’ That’s a very complicated question because potential actually doesn’t exist. It’s just a bet on the future, but we know a few things,” Peterson said. “We know a certain amount of intelligence is required. A certain amount of hard-wired capabilities that we call foundational skills have to be there.

Assess people: Are they smart enough, do they have sufficient drive, do they have enough energy to stick with it and make it to the top? You can identify some of those things through personality tests and observing leaders on the job.

“Second, there’s a set of experiences and lessons learned that, the more of them people have, the more likely they are to succeed as they advance. Some of that, if people don’t have it, you want to make sure that they get it. Have people handled a turnaround situation at work, have they had to deal with a financial crisis, have they had to manage poor performers, have they inherited some difficult problems from a difficult team and had to fix that?

The more they’ve shown they can figure things out and learn and handle a variety of situations, the more likely they are to be successful. That you can systematically provide to people.”

Source: Kellye Whitney, managing editor for Talent Management magazine.