managemnet company strategy managemanet How to Help Superstar Employees Fulfill Their Potential

How to Help Superstar Employees Fulfill Their Potential

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What do high-potential employees describe as their top challenges? And what areas of development will they have to deal with as they climb the corporate ladder?

To better understand these challenges, we analyzed more than 3,000 applications and sponsor statements for those admitted to Harvard Business School’s flagship High Potential Leadership Program (HPLP) from 2003 to 2021. The admissions team asks applicants to identify their primary leadership challenge, their goals for attending the program, and their leadership style and approach. Sponsors are asked to identify the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses, outline their reasons for the nomination, and state their goals for the applicant.

Our analysis sheds light on the ways in which companies assess the strengths and development needs of their executives on the fast track, as well as the ways in which these executives define the their challenges. These insights can inform how managers support their top executives to reach their full potential and how organizations can drive the content and delivery of leadership development programs.

Key Challenges Facing High Potential

For nearly 20 years, our high potential program has consistently identified five consistent leadership challenges:

  • Top teams
  • Leading change
  • Leadership style
  • Leading the scale
  • Driving business results

More than 30% of high potentials cited leading teams as their main challenge. “My biggest leadership challenge is determining the procedures for the top team members,” a 2005 executive said. “Each team member has a different background and each one has a different drive. I should have handled it differently. “

Fifteen years ago, the high potential noticed the increased complexity of the leading global teams in the distance. “Having enough time to develop employees while advancing the organization’s goals is a real challenge especially in a virtual environment,” said a 2020 program participant.

For the most part, men and women discuss the same leadership challenges. However, women are more likely than men to cite “leadership style” as a challenge. As one woman said: “I struggle with my leadership style. I am very driven, see the end goal, and always think that everyone around me should be able to do the same. Whether giving direction or communicating to my team members, sometimes it comes across as parental and directive. Although I am well respected and respected, I want to make sure that my leadership style continues to be one of motivation, encouragement, and development versus one which makes people angry and therefore they don’t want to follow me and my vision.

What Gets You Here Won’t Get You There

The transition from individual contributor to team leader can be very difficult. Over the past 20 years, sponsors have focused on two key strengths – an ability to drive results and functional or technical expertise – as central reasons for identifying and nominating candidates. employee as high potential.

But to get to the next level, high potential rewarded for personal achievements must learn to recalibrate a definition of success based on the team’s collective performance. Relying on a past track record of success is not enough as high potentials grapple with the scale, scope, and complexity of more senior general management roles.

Rising to higher levels of leadership requires six key skills, according to the managers in our data set:

  • Strategic management
  • Emotional intelligence
  • communications
  • Leading the scale
  • Top teams
  • Relationship management

As the sponsors in our data set consider the next step for their top potential, they often cite the need for top potential to have a broader vision and a deeper sense of the strategic and competitive landscape. look. They note that the technical and functional skills that enable high potential to excel may actually inhibit their ability to see the “big picture.” As one manager wrote, “Calvin*’s weakness is seeing the bigger picture of how his management affects the entire organization.”

In addition to expanding their apertures, high potentials also need to expand their emotional intelligence and communication skills. A representative comment from a sponsor said, “John has very strong skills. He is strong in operations, marketing, and leading the development of new technology, but he needs to improve his soft skills. He has a big blind spot in how he treats people.” Sponsors in our sample were more likely to identify strategic management as an opportunity for advancement for women and emotional intelligence as a developmental opportunity for men.

How Organizations Can Develop High Potential

As organizations seek ways to ensure that their high potential fulfills their promise, they must be prepared to equip them with the ability to think and act more strategically, to lead with greater conviction, and to develop and nurture relationships. In essence, organizations must create scaffolding that allows high potential to simultaneously develop the macro skills of strategy and the micro skills of interpersonal relationships.

Our analysis points to three clear priorities as organizations look to develop their high potential:

1. Measure high potentials against specific skills to help expand their leadership style.

While most high-potentials have experience managing small teams, their next career step is likely to involve leading large teams, where they don’t have the ability to regularly interact with every team member. . As high potentials rise to lead in scale and scope, they need to create conditions that enable the team to function effectively without their day-to-day presence. This includes the development of operational platforms and incentives to reinforce positive behavior; supporting and cultivating a vibrant and healthy culture; and creating a context that enables team members to grow, develop, and perform.

Managers can support this effort by tracking the progress of high potentials against key leadership skills, such as team management, relationship building, and communication. In particular, the ability of high potentials to lead effective teams, motivate and inspire others, and express a compelling vision depends on their ability to communicate successfully. While they can be effective in small team meetings or one-on-one interactions, they must also be good at communicating scale and scope. It requires showing confidence, conviction, and clarity.

2. Help high potentials increase their emotional intelligence.

As one progresses in their career, they often have to rely on others to get the job done, and that requires trust, support, and guidance. Essentially, it requires emotional intelligence, and the two central tenants of emotional intelligence that are essential for high potential are self-awareness and empathy. MANY RESEARCH REVEALS study identified a link between self-aware leaders and climates that are open, supportive, and productive. As such, programs and experiences that enable high potentials to increase their self-awareness are critical. This can be done through feedback, assessments, role plays and video recordings.

Along with self-awareness, empathy is at the core of the ability to manage conflict successfully, to coach and mentor subordinates, and to motivate and inspire others. It is also shown important in cross-cultural teams. Despite its strengths, empathy often falls victim to one’s over-focus on results and success. Paradoxically, while empathy tends to decrease as one acts, that is when it is most needed, especially when one is leading and not doing.

While many believe that empathy is something you either have or you don’t, it can be learned, but it requires dedicated behavior change. By focusing on the question, develop active listening skillsrecognizing different perspectives, and showing genuine concern, high potentials improve their empathic skills.

3. Encourage learning thinking.

The transition from a core technical or specific functional area to a general management role requires high potentials to see how the various functions interact and how the strategic requirements of their organization influenced and influenced the prevailing landscape of the context. Leaders can benefit from developing contextual intelligence – the ability to understand the context and adapt to a person’s style and approach. This requires moving outside the comfort zone (eg, core technical area) and adapting a learning mindset.

Developing and cultivating a learning mindset requires an openness to new experiences, a sense of curiosity and inquiry, and a willingness to question assumptions, biases, and perspectives. to a person. Organizations can support the development of these capabilities by developing a culture of psychological safety and risk taking. They will also provide high potentials with the opportunity to contribute to strategic initiatives outside of their core functional area, allow them to participate in scenario planning and projection analysis, and provide them with opportunities to development of new markets or new product/service areas.

. . .

While high potentials are recognized for their results-orientation and work ethic, the next step in their leadership journey will depend on their ability to work with and through others. That success comes from a heightened focus on emotional intelligence, communication, and relationship management. To ensure the success of their high potentials, managers and organizations must provide coaching, development support, and stretching opportunities, and high potentials must accept them in an open and committed manner. learning mindset.

*Names have been changed.

Letty Garcia and Karina Grazina of Harvard Business School’s Leadership Initiative provided valuable support in data collection, coding, and analysis for this article.

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