High performers aren’t necessarily high potentials

Finding the best person to move up is fraught with issues for HR — but tools can help weed out undesirable traits
By Melissa Mancini
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/22/2011

Succession planning:

Marilyn Buckner, a professor at the University of Central Florida’s Leadership Institute, spoke in June at a Strategic Capability Network event about designing succession planning and high-potential development and assessment programs. For more information, visit


. (Scroll down to bottom of this page to view a video featuring Buckner.)

High performers aren’t necessarily high potentials

How to select good leader material

Hail talent management

Dealing with people hardest part

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High performers aren’t necessarily high potentials

By Melissa Mancini

When Marilyn Buckner started out in succession management planning in 1983, she was starting from scratch.

“There wasn’t even a book written on this, the CEO just said, ‘We want to do succession planning,’ and it was really hard to figure out what to do,” said Buckner. “I just made it all up, it was kind of fun.”

Buckner even had to hire computer designers to work on special programs to help her with succession management because there were none available.

Fortunately, for HR professionals today, that’s no longer the case.

Buckner, who has a PhD in counselling and management from Georgia State University in Atlanta, teaches at the University of Central Florida’s Leadership Institute in Orlando, Fla., and is a past chair of the board of the Human Resource Planning Society (now HR People & Strategy) in Chicago.

She recently spoke at a Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in Toronto about designing succession planning and high-potential development and assessment programs.

Buckner talked about different approaches to succession planning and how to identify and assess the top people in a company.

High potential versus high performer

Identifying employees capable of taking over top roles is fraught with issues HR is charged with figuring out.

Often, high performance is used as a prerequisite when companies are selecting someone to move up in a company. But high performance in one position does not necessarily predict success in a new role or role with more responsibility, said Buckner.

“We know that (high potentials) achieve a lot, they drive for results, they take a lot of initiative, but that looks like what a high performer looks like too,” she said, adding high potentials tend to have additional skills, including the ability to learn quickly and think outside of the box.

The criteria for identifying high potential include the ability to move up at least two levels, meeting assessment criteria and matching the competencies laid out as necessary for higher positions, said Buckner.


Once top employees are identified as high potential, the assessment process begins.

It’s important to assess candidates for “derailing” behaviours said Buckner.

Derailing behaviours — the personality traits that hold high-potential candidates back from being successful leaders, such as mischievousness or arrogance — are an important factor in the identification process, she said.

An assessment tool can help identify high potentials with the capacity to change their derailers, Buckner said.

“It’s really hard — you have to give them some kind of a test.”

Assessment is essential because an employee who can’t overcome his derailing traits can be costly to a company. If someone identified as a high potential is promoted or moved overseas, even though he may have done well in corporate headquarters, the stress of being in a different environment could cause derailers to manifest, said Buckner.

“So, if they are not aware of (their derailers), those are going to come out.”

Some of the validated assessment tools available to HR professionals include Hogan High Potential Candidate Assessment Report, Decision Styles and online or live assessment centres, said Buckner.

Action plans and development

Once candidates are identified, succession management requires HR professionals to have action plans and develop top talent to prepare them for future roles.

Organizations should be careful not to expect a high-potential candidate to be perfectly ready for a new role.

“I think sometimes we don’t want to move high potentials, we say they’re not ready,” said Buckner. “I’ve never seen one that’s ready. It’s like organizations want them to be perfectly ready and my… question sometimes is, ‘Why can’t we, with the right support, go ahead and move that person?’”

Development can take many forms but the most popular is often coaching, said Buckner.

“The high potentials that I’ve coached, they always rate it the highest,” she said. “They love that attention, someone focused right on them.”

Buckner cited her recent experience at AT&T as proof coaching is effective. When the company was merging with a wireless company, it had people go through two sessions with a coach. All 250 people in that group stayed after the merger.

“They had virtually no turnover — they normally do,” she said. “Because those people in that group all felt valued.”

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How to select good leader material

By Dave Crisp

The great thing about listening to true experts, in any field, is the way they’re able to summarize the keys to their expertise in just a few minutes — notwithstanding Marilyn Buckner had four hours.

Buckner boiled down talent management (which she noted is simply an evolving title for continuity or succession planning) to just three items: identifying talent, determining review or assessment processes and developing high-potential people (HiPos).

All through her presentation, she conveniently summarized key points this way and cited rules of thumb she leaned on or discovered during her years as an active head of succession planning for major corporations worldwide.

From Jim Bolt’s work, she noted five keys to successful leadership, starting at the top with creating vision and empowering others. I summarize that even further to “coaching style leadership” since coach leaders try to align individuals’ and an organization’s vision and do all they can to empower team members to achieve it. This is the same message Google recently discovered and proved conclusively, as Google engineers do, with substantial statistics — coaching is the number one skill needed in leaders today. Coaching actually takes care of most assessment and development. But what about identifying?

Buckner went on to point out that, for all the skills leaders need, most often great would-be candidates are derailed by some flaw. She provided a handy list of what’s most often lacking — strategic thinking, leading change, creating a vision and engaging others around it, inspiring and understanding how the total enterprise has to function together to achieve the best results. In short, leadership is about getting others involved and functioning at a high level. It is less about the individual skills or abilities of leaders themselves — something all too many aspiring leaders ignore.

One of Buckner’s most enlightening comments, delivered in almost a throw-away fashion, as true experts do, was this: “I often found the best measure of leadership potential was to get my assistant to request a budding leader submit and then several times make changes to a proposal of some sort. Then I’d ask my assistant how it went. If the answer was, ‘OK, but he was so mean about it,’ I’d know this was not a good candidate. In other words, when I put them under a bit of stress, they buckled and didn’t handle ­people well.”

It isn’t how they do their job that identifies leaders, but how they rise to puzzling challenges.

There you have it in a nutshell. As Buckner repeatedly noted, you can’t distinguish the better leader candidates from the weaker ones by results — they will both be doing well at their work. But if you put them into an unexpectedly stressful situation where they have to do things differently from their current role, you immediately see who can learn and deal with the stress of a new challenge under deadline pressure.

So put away the complicated assessments or, at the very least, add one simple one — just ask your staff who the meanies are… and, for goodness sake, don’t promote them or put them in a HiPo pool.

Dave Crisp is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on leadership in action. He has a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co., where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.CrispStrategies.com.

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Hail talent management

By Ian Hendry

The Toronto Raptors recently introduced their new coach to the media. When asked how he would bring success to the team, Dwane Casey said he would focus on defence, an area where the Raptors have perpetually performed poorly.

“The key with defence is effort,” he said.

Interesting debates have ensued — how far does effort or commitment get you when your talent quotient is average at best? In an organizational context, how many jobs are essentially high repetition where effort can mask the “real” talent level of employees?

As loathe as I am to reference the expression “a seat at the table,” there is no doubt talent management is high on the priority list for most HR departments, and rightly so. If people assets are a key differentiator, they should keep CEOs awake at night and the head of HR should spend an equal amount of time tossing and turning. This explains why audiences are eager to attend sessions on talent management when all but the title is more than 30 years old.

During the half-day SCNetwork session, Marilyn Buckner offered numerous ideas on talent management.

First and foremost, you need a CEO who is willing to make participation mandatory and perhaps even consider ­penalizing laggards where it hurts, such as their bonuses.

Identify the critical success factors and make sure you have thoughtful and honest feedback. Yes, it’s uncomfortable for most but, without it, mediocrity will rule. We’ve all heard the excuses but, bottom line, no talent management program can succeed without candid feedback and clear-minded career planning discussions.

At least 50 per cent to 60 per cent of promotions should be made from the list of high-potential individuals who have been in development. Importantly, they must be seen to be succeeding through the process, meaning they are not in and out of jobs on the upward trajectory before performance results can be properly measured.

If you are doing a good job measuring the talent quotient, then you need quarterly or, worse case, semi-annual discussions with the up-and-comers, thereby constantly assessing the effectiveness of the development plans.

To prevent hoarding, ensure managers who do a great job in developing talent are recognized — raise their profile or provide monetary incentives. Recognize trainees can impact results and consciously make allowances for that. In fact, no manager should be promoted if she can’t develop talent.

At the top end of the house, the executive team must have trust in each other and in key roles — the idea of giving up a strong player is not an alien concept. The importance of developing talent and deploying it for the betterment of the whole organization needs to be modelled. Beware of silos.

If you need to start over because what you have doesn’t work, start at the top with a layer or two and work down the organization in stages — once the process has proven to be effective. We’ve been talking about this for 30-plus years and an awful lot of effort has been expended. Do we have the talent to make it work now?

Ian Hendry is president of the Strategic Capability Network and a commentator on organizational effectiveness.

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Dealing with people hardest part

By Karen Gorsline

Employers use tools and programs to help with the scale of their organizations and to put discipline into their management. But one of the hardest things to do is balance the goal of building strategic capability in talent development and succession with the reality of dealing with people. These individuals are smart, talented and achievement-oriented people, but they’re still people. While looking to the sky, there is a need to keep grounded and look at some factors that can foil the best of plans. So how can organizations do that?

Assessment tools are seen as useful because past success does not always predict future success. Positive results may occur in one role or situation but may not repeat in a different role or situation. Understanding how someone approaches problems and situations is a stronger predictor of future behaviour than results, which focus on the “what” aspect of performance, not the “how.” If desired leadership and decision-making styles are understood, it is possible to compare these styles to those that have been previously exhibited.

Marilyn Buckner covered a number of useful assessment tools, including insights on derailers — behaviours an individual exhibits, either in day-to-day or stressful situations, that present barriers to effective leadership and decision-making.

Every individual, regardless of his talent or success, has strengths and weaknesses. An individual may lash out under stress, behave in uncharacteristic ways or even treat individuals at lower levels in an organization poorly. Understanding undesirable behaviours, when they are likely to occur and their impact enables an organization to manage the development of the individual and different situations or placements.

From here, organizations need to go further into the weeds and become aware of some very real and personal situations. Most assessments don’t deal with factors that are unique to a person, yet there are three noteworthy factors:

The individual may perform well at work: The results are what are desired and the leadership and decision-making behaviours seem to be appropriate — all assessments show as positive. What may not be apparent, at first, is how the individual is coping by internalizing his stress. There may be alcohol or substance abuse, or he may take his frustration out on family members. Most organizations wait until the problem becomes apparent in the workplace before dealing with it. Most do not equip their talent to deal with stress, failure or not knowing everything. They do not take a proactive stance. Instead, they provide a gym membership, hope for the best and look to employee assistance programs (EAPs) for solutions when a problem emerges. If problems do emerge, the individual may be seen as tainted.

Personal circumstances that must be taken into consideration: This could be child-rearing, special needs in the family or a family concerned about relocation. Even staff who willingly accept global placements may subsequently find their family is unable to adapt to a new environment — which ultimately results in an unsatisfactory situation for all.

Passion: Many assessments look at where a person’s strengths lie but not his passion. Many talented individuals may do a good job but do not thrive. An organization needs to ask: Are these individuals growing and do they love what they are doing? Are they fulfilled and do they see opportunities within the company that allow them to live out their passion? Or are they just taking another step up the stairs to career success?

While assessment tools enhance the ability of a company to build its talent pipeline, a company that ignores truly knowing and caring about its people and only focuses on meeting company needs does so at its own peril.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at gorslin@pathcom.com.

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Would you like to attend one of the upcoming SCNetwork events? Here’s a look at the next session. Visit www.scnetwork.ca for more information.

August: Social HR — Recruit, engage, retain, communicate and create a brand with social media. (Toronto, Aug. 17.)

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