By Michael Holland

The label of high potential brings such opportunity and promise.  That young leader was thrilled to have been “identified” as high potential and excited that his perseverance was paying off.  Now he’s on his way to the elite club; he’s going to truly be successful.  He’s going to run up the ranks of leadership quickly and get all the perks that come along with such an ascension.

But will he?  Studies are now showing that many who were labeled as “high potential” are not nearly as successful as they and their organization had hoped.  And that’s for those that stay in the organization.

The identification of high potentials as fast learners and top performers has been accurate overall.  But according to Jennifer Petriglieri and Gianpiero Petriglieri  in their HBR article The Talent Curse, “. . . often, placement on a fast track doesn’t speed up their growth as leaders in the organization, as it’s meant to do. Instead, it either pushes them out the door or slows them down—thwarting their development, decreasing their engagement, and hurting their performance.”

Part of the problem comes from the increased pressure to perform at higher and higher levels to justify the leader’s status as a high potential.  This can cause the leader to not be as creative, innovative in their approaches for the fear of failing grows higher than the opportunity for success.  There are so many people who could be let down.  There is too much emphasis on a performance orientation and not on a learning orientation.  Those with a performance orientation are embarrassed by failure, whereas those with a learning orientation are spurred on by it. (see Carol Dweck’s research)

The key for leading all employees – including our prized high potentials – is to enable an environment that encourages the employee to seek growth because their intelligence is malleable.  They won’t give up on problems as easily and will work harder to solve those problems.

So as you set or revisit the performance expectations for yourself and your employees, consider thinking of each expectation in the framework of learning-performance orientation.

Leaders leading well are lifelong learners and enable their employees to be as well.

Coaching Thoughts – For You and Your Peers

  • Are you labeled as a “high potential”? Has your performance been impacted?
  • Should we identify some employees as better than others or should we look at them as all the same?  Take a peer manager to lunch and discuss.
  • Are there times when you should be leading with more of a performance orientation than a learning orientation?
  • How does the statement “mistakes reveal opportunities for learning, innovating and creative problem solving” make you feel?