This is a three-part series about high-potential managers. It's intended for organizational leaders and/or learning and development professionals who are responsible for nurturing internal talent at the manager level.

Defining "high-potential" for your organization

If you're reading this, you probably already know that if you don't develop your best managers, they'll likely leave you sometime soon. Yet most organizations offer little or no support to their high-potential (HiPo) managers. What's more, a surprising number of companies that do launch HiPo programs do so before defining what “high-potential” actually means to them.

Nitin Nohria, former dean of Harvard Business School, defines a person with "potential" as someone who is likely to succeed in a bigger role in the future.

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But who are these people, really? What are some of their key characteristics? At Lead Belay, we define “high-potential” managers as those with the potential to:

  1. Attract top talent to work with them,
  2. Lead their teams to meet their commitments and take on more responsibility, and
  3. Lead others to innovate in ways that fit with their organizations’ strategy and vision.

In short, these are people with the potential to be great people leaders. And the first step to realizing this potential is earning a promotion into their first management position.

Selecting your high-performance employees

There have been volumes of research around the question, “Is a leader born or made?” The answer can be summed up as... well, some of both. Let’s break this down a bit. Anyone can become a great people leader, as long as they have:

  • Enough self-awareness to recognize they have a lot of flaws
  • The willingness to invest in themselves
  • Sufficient empathy (i.e., they aren’t a narcissist)
  • The desire to help others succeed

So this brings us to a critical question: Once you’ve defined what qualifies someone as a “HiPo” within your organization, how do you select these people among your emerging leaders

The answer: You don’t. You let them pick themselves. 
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What are the benefits of managerial self-selection?

Organizations often struggle with how to choose the HiPo candidates they’ll groom for or promote to the next level of leadership. The fact is, there are so many selection biases that come into play when “choosing” someone, none of which have much to do with a person’s leadership potential.

At Lead Belay, we’ve observed that people identified as "high-potential" in their organizations are often hard workers who have historically crushed it as individual contributors... Or, they might remind us of ourselves. Perhaps they graduated from a prestigious school?

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Biases like these not only short-sell who the selected high-potential managers really are, they may also setting them up for failure. That’s because the qualities of a potentially great people leader are often internal to the person, such as dedication, a growth mindset, and a disposition for caring for others.

These qualities aren’t skill-based and are not easily judged or taught by others. And don't forget that once someone is in a new management position, it takes a significant amount of hard work and perseverance to become a good leader.

A better way to select HiPo candidates

Instead of choosing HiPos, we recommend putting a process in place that allows them to raise their hands for the tough work ahead. This gives HiPos agency and a foundation for motivation to reach a goal and embrace a reality they consciously chose.

Self-selection also avoids problems inherent in the anointing of some people as high-potential leaders while leaving others out. This approach creates resentment and drives turnover among those who are left off the “HiPo list.”

One important caveat: empower HiPos to self-select, but don’t make the process a cakewalk for them. After all, once promoted, a new manager isn’t suddenly finished with their professional development – the hardest parts are just beginning. So give them access to the kind of development that reflects what growth really feels like when you’re a leader: something challenging and active that requires some discomfort and real struggle.

Keep reading:

How to invest in your high-potential new managers

5 common pitfalls of HiPo manager development

About Lead Belay

Lead Belay is a supportive, but challenging, peer-based, coach-led experience designed specifically for new managers. It’s fun, but it’s also difficult at times. It’s meant for people who want to do the work to grow as people leaders – exactly the type of people you want as your high-potentials.


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