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Unleashing Leadership Potential Throughout Your Organization

leaders at every levelHuman capital surveys with senior executives everywhere consistently find that there’s a profound concern in finding and maximizing leadership potential in organizations.

Everyone’s so busy bemoaning the lack of leadership potential that they’re often missing what’s right in front of them. Their preconceived notions of what it’s supposed to look like causes them to miss it. When you have a “diamond in the rough” available, you need to polish it so it’s more readily recognizable. Waiting for the diamond to polish itself rarely works. A diamond who does that will likely look for an organization that’s more affirming. 

To unleash leadership potential, you may have to broaden your view of what it is, what it looks like, and who may be demonstrating it. 

First, a Word of Caution about Evaluating “Potential” 

Figure of butterfly emerging from cocoonFor over 50 years, companies everywhere have been using 9-box models for talent review. The premise is this: assess the performance of each employee (low, medium, high) and the potential of every employee (low, medium, high). You’ll end up with nine possible combinations like “high performance, medium potential.”

 By bucketing employees, the theory goes, you will have clarity about what to do with them. The ones who are labeled “high performance” and “high potential” (aka hiper/hipo) are the “superstars” and the ones to build for the company’s future leadership. Conversely, the ones labeled “loper/lopo” are to be managed out (this is the same, infamous process used at CE when Jack Welch axed the bottom 10% every year). 

The antiquated system and misused 9-box tool are fraught with problems. Chief among them is this: 

No human can ever really know the potential of another person.

We barely grasp our own potential! It’s ludicrous to think that a group of managers can fairly, uniformly and accurately determine the potential of employees who, in most cases, they barely know. 

Even when there are efforts to evaluate potential objectively, there’s the undeniable impact of unconscious biases that influence how we interpret these “objective” factors. Consider, for example, the six markers of potential that are most-often used:

  • Ability
  • Aspiration/Drive
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Good Judgment
  • Adaptability/Learning Agility
  • Leadership Qualities

If you ask two different people to define these six items, you’ll come away with vastly different definitions. Ask “how do you know it when you see it?” and the differences in interpretation will be even more clear. What’s more, most managers will select performance-based examples… meaning that you’re over-weighting the performance side of the scale rather than factoring in potential at all.

There are, of course, assessment tools you can use. The one(s) you select will depend on how you are evaluating potential. The HPTI (Thomas High Potential Trait Indicator), for example, measures conscientiousness, adjustment, curiosity, risk approach, ambiguity, acceptance, and competitiveness.

Like all assessments, however, there are environmental and circumstantial influences. If you’re administering the HPTI assessment to someone who’s in the midst of a messy divorce, suspicious of the assessment tool and how it will be used, and generally anxious about tests, you’ll probably get scores that look more cautious and reluctant than the individual actually is when dealing with work situations. Context matters.

This BrightTALK presentation will reveal more about the hazards of the traditional 9-box model and an alternative that overcomes those landmines. 

How to Find the Hidden Leadership Potential in Your Organization

Studies show that CEOs believe that leadership development should begin at age 19, even before people are employed in roles that traditionally require leadership skills.

Unfortunately, the average age when people first receive leadership development is 44. That’s 25 years too late, according to CEOs. It’s after bad habits have developed, blind spots have formed, and other people have been negatively impacted by subpar interactions and decisions made by under-developed leaders.

Corporate practices exacerbate this problem in 3 major ways.

  • The people selected for leadership development are the ones who are already in management roles, the ones that others already rely heavily on for leadership.
  • In-house programs often focus more on business acumen and functional knowledge than on leadership skills, characteristics, and behaviors.
  • Management training is mislabeled as leadership development. Managing and leading are not the same. Without understanding the differences, training omits the leadership development.

Starting earlier, genuinely focusing on leadership (which has nothing to do with job level or functional expertise), and recognizing the differences between managing and leading will produce more bang for your buck in leadership development.

Getting this clarity will also give you a broader view of who may have leadership potential to develop.

Let’s reiterate this important point: leadership development should NOT be exclusively for senior managers or people who have risen to some pre-determined level in the organization. It’s not only for some subjectively selected set of people who were bucketed in the “hipo” boxes during talent review. It also should not be offered based on personality type or any certain characteristics.

Leadership potential can be found and unleashed at any level, from people with no experience, in any type of function, and with any set of personality traits.

At times, everyone leads. Even a two-year-old playing with other children will show leadership. What makes some people more effective than others in leading? 40+ years of research by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, leadership development experts, reveal that what leaders DO is what makes them effective. The more frequently they behave in 30 specific ways, the more effective they will be. These 30 behaviors are accessible to everyone and do not require special characteristics or authority.

To find hidden leadership potential in your organization, your fastest and most efficient pathway is to introduce these 30 behaviors to everyone. Then see who responds by deliberately incorporating these behaviors into their day-to-day work and interactions with others. You’ll soon see an explosion of leadership potential, as measured in real results and accelerated growth. What’s more, this approach reduces burnout, increases employee engagement, and improves the culture and atmosphere at work.  

Where, Then, Should We Allocate Our Training Dollars? 

If you want leadership in your organization, set expectations for people to lead. Not some people. All people. You want leadership at every level.

To back up these expectations, provide training that introduces leadership behaviors. Let everyone in on it! Reinforce and recognize these behaviors when you see them. Be sure to notice the cause-and-effect between higher frequency of leadership behaviors and better business results. This is an evidence-based approach that removes the guesswork and has been independently validated in reams of research.

Behaviors are observable. They’re measurable. The 30 behaviors are backed by an assessment tool that is not subjective, situational, or mood-based. It measures the frequency of behaviors, not the quality. It doesn’t measure traits or anything that’s subject to individual interpretation. You can measure the progress against the baseline assessment to find out who’s making improvements (and who’s not).

You may find that some folks don’t respond. They don’t make behavioral changes. Voila! Now you know, objectively and certainly, who is and who is not demonstrating leadership potential. Now it’s clear where you should allocate additional training dollars.

Work with the willing. The coachable. The ones who have made deliberate efforts to increase the frequency of their leadership behaviors. Your “diamonds in the rough” will begin to shine. Your polished diamonds will understand what it takes to continue sparkling bright. And everyone throughout your organization will have a behavior-based model for leadership that they can learn, observe, and emulate.

The initial investments you’ll make are far less costly than the alternatives where you lose too many people and have to spend excessively to try an attract leaders from other organizations. You’ll be eliminating any risks associated with unfairness and any disengagement associated with being overlooked. You’ll build a pipeline of leadership by retaining, training, and ennobling people throughout your organization.