Why High-Potential Employees Fail

RJ Morris Audacious Ideas, Coaching, RJ Morris

I’ve been doing a bit more development and succession planning work lately, especially around internal leadership development candidates. If you have ever been involved in a succession planning process, you know this truth—that funnel gets a lot narrower as time goes on. Stan was a high potential four years ago, but he’s out of your funnel this year. As a matter of fact, lots of employees identified as high potentials early in their career fall out along the way.

Why? Rarely do people fail due to some technical deficiency—not being a good enough programmer or being an average accountant. My take: they lack the ability to create followership.

The ability for a high-pot to rise through an organization and keep people wanting to work with her is the number one thing it takes to keep their star rising. When people below you think less of you than what people above you think, you’re on short time. You can make that last for a while, but it will catch up to you.

Kris Dunn wrote about this concept last week. He refers to it as Leadership Gravity. I have heard people call it “stickiness”—how much do employees want to keep working with you? More from Kris:

Individual employees talk to each other every day.  They observe when they aren’t talking.  All that interaction and observation means your employees know which managers in your organization are the best at developing talent… giving them interesting things to work on, challenging them, giving them all the credit for great work and always—and I mean always—approaching employee development with an eye on what’s best for each individual employee’s career. That employee development-centric approach creates Leadership Gravity.  Employees look for opportunities to transfer into teams that have LG.  They look to get the hell out of teams with low Leadership Gravity.

Let’s take Sally, who just started her career at Vandalay Industries. Here’s her career development.

  1. Sally comes in, kicks butt in some technical or sales role
  2. Shows initiative, has decent interpersonal skills, and gets noticed
  3. The higher-ups call her a high pot and give her some new assignments and maybe a larger span of control
  4. Inherits a team or builds a team, none of whom respect her as much as the bosses do
  5. Higher-ups monitor her performance, which initially appears strong
  6. Sally still gets results, but people begin to fall away from her team
  7. Solid talent in the company find ways to join other teams
  8. Over time, management catches up what the people on the street have already figured out
  9. Sally’s stock drops faster than that of the Japanese soccer team’s goalie

They don’t dislike her, but they don’t like working for her, either. Sally doesn’t need to create a cult around her, but she needs to bring talent to and keep talent on her teams. When she fails, it begins to become clear to management that she’s gone as far as she can. The people who stay on the succession plan chart attract talent to them like a magnet.

RJ Morris

I have spent the last 20 years of my professional life advising leaders to make great talent decisions to drive business results. In my current gig, I lead talent acquisition and management for a multi-billion-dollar, 100% employee-owned construction company. I geek out on analytics, succession planning, etc. and love it when we position folks to do their best work. That’s fun stuff. I tease bad HR people, because I think we can all do better, myself included. That’s fun, too.