The Paradox of High Potentials

by Ron Ashkenas | April 24, 2012

To retain high-potential employees, the conventional wisdom is deceptively simple: Identify, develop, and nurture them. By paying special attention to the very best people, they will stay with the firm and eventually emerge as key leaders.

But translating this into action is much more difficult. As the former head of executive development at GE used to tell me, “There’s a difference between doing it and really doing it.” Many firms have trouble keeping their best people, despite their investments in talent management. In fact, a study last year by the Corporate Executive Board indicated that “25 percent of employer-identified, high-potential employees plan to leave their current companies within the year, as compared to only 10 percent in 2006.”The study also found that 40% of the internal job moves for high potentials ended in failure.

So despite the focus on high potentials and the importance of effectively managing them, why do so many organizations struggle to do it well? Let me suggest two reasons.

Discomfort with Differentiation: In order to focus on high potentials, some employees need to be singled out. And, truth be told, most managers hate to differentiate. They would prefer to treat everyone the same, avoiding the uncomfortable process of sorting people by levels of performance. As a result, managers will identify certain employees as “high-potential” simply because they don’t want to tell them that they’re outperformed by their colleagues. And others, who are appropriately selected, are not told because it would create an uncomfortable two-class system. In other words, managers avoid declaring who the high potentials are, for fear of upsetting people who were not selected.

Discomfort with Developmental Dialogue: Even if high potentials are identified properly, bringing them to the next level requires a continual, complex dialogue. Managers need to stretch, challenge, and coach their high-potential employees and make sure their assignments push them beyond their comfort zones. To do so, they have to work with senior business leaders and HR to clarify assessments, identify opportunities, and coordinate possible moves. Without multi-dimensional dialogue about these issues, managers tend to hold on to their high-potential people instead of helping them along an intentional developmental pathway. High-potentials then may interpret this as a lack of company support and will be inclined to look elsewhere.

Unfortunately, engaging in this kind of developmental dialogue is foreign to many managers and can cause just as much anxiety as the need to differentiate. In fact most managers avoid coaching discussions, particularly with employees who have more potential in their careers than they do.

Taken together, the twin discomforts of differentiation and dialogue hinder high-potential programs, even when senior line and HR executives do a good job of centrally structuring assessments, rotations, and training. This may at least partly explain why so many company-identified high potentials don’t remain with their firms.

To increase the odds of success, senior executives need to focus not just on the high-potential programs, but the underlying anxieties of managers who have to execute them. One way to do this, for example, is to require managers to mentor one of their high-potential direct reports. Not only will this approach be good for the chosen employees in the short-term, but also it will force managers to get more comfortable with performance differentiation and developmental dialogues. As anyone who has done it can attest, mentoring benefits the mentor as much (if not more) than the mentee.

How well does your company retain and develop its top talent?

9 Snap Judgments Managers Make in Job Interviews

By Jeff Haden | August 23, 2011

I’ve interviewed thousands of potential employees and hired hundreds of them. Over time I developed the ability to quickly size up a candidate, sometimes even within a minute or two, based on one or two actions or comments. My snap judgments were rarely wrong. (Although I didn’t always avoid making one of the biggest hiring mistakes.)

I know what you’re probably thinking:“But that is so unfair. You owed it to every candidate to wait until the interview was over to draw an overall conclusion. You can’t make a hiring decision based on one or two minutes out of an hour-long interview.”

Fair enough. But keep in mind most interviewers do the same thing. In fact, the more experienced the interviewer the more likely they are to make snap judgments. Fair or unfair, we’re heavily influenced by first impressions or by what experience indicates are pivotal moments. If you’re the job candidate you can either complain about the unfairness of it all and blow the interview, or accept that fact and use it to your advantage.

Here are some positive thin-slices:

  • The candidate immediately thanks me for the interview and says they’re excited about the opportunity. I want you to be glad you’re here. I want you to be excited about the job. If you’re not thankful and excited now you definitely won’t be thrilled after six months on the job. Plus an overt “let me see if this job is a good fit for me” interview can often be painful for the interviewer; even if over the course of the interview you realize you really want the job, you probably already lost us. Emotion — positive emotion — is good.
  • The candidate needs to make “truck payments.” Years ago I was in charge of part-time employees at a manufacturing plant. Full-time employees were required to work heavy overtime but part-time employees were not, making coverage (and my job) difficult. When I asked a part-time candidate about their willingness to work overtime I loved the guys who said, “I’ll work all the overtime I can get. I bought a new truck and the payments are killing me.” Every job has a hot button requirement: Maybe it’s frequent travel, maybe it’s last-minute overtime, maybe it’s a particular skill… a candidate who finds out the position’s hot button and meets it is 90% home.
  • The candidate is late — but doesn’t tell me why. Say you’re late for an interview. Don’t tell me about traffic or bad directions or parking problems. Just say, “I’m sorry I’m late. If I’ve thrown off your day I will be glad to reschedule whenever it’s convenient for you.” Take ownership, don’t make excuses, and offer ways to make things better. Nothing ever goes perfectly, and knowing you will take responsibility and work to fix problems is impressive.
  • The candidate asks for the job. Salespeople ask for the sale, and candidates should ask for the job. Just say, “Thanks for the interview. I really enjoyed speaking with you. And I would really love to work here.” Why should I offer you something you’re not willing to ask for?

And some negative thin-slices:

  • The candidate complains. Most people know not to complain about their present employer, but any complaint is a downer. Say you notice a photo of my family standing front of the Colosseum. You say, “Wow, I’ve always wanted to go to Italy… I’ve just never been able to afford it.” Even gentle whining is a bummer. Don’t complain about anything, no matter how justified. Negatives always stand out.
  • The candidate isn’t ready. Don’t you hate when you’re standing in line at the grocery store and the person in front of you waits until all their items have been scanned and bagged before they reach into their wallet for their checkbook? The same is true in an interview: Have your resume and everything else you need all set to go. Hit the ground running and immediately focus on the interviewer. “Work” is a verb. Make “interview” a verb too.
  • The candidate tries to take charge. Everyone likes a leader… just not in an interview. Feel free to subtly shape the interview and lead the conversation into areas that showcase your strengths, but don’t try to take over. Employers need people who can lead and follow. Plus, be honest, you trying to take over is really irritating.
  • The candidate gets “comfortable.” I want you to be relaxed and at ease during the interview, but I also want you to sit up, sit forward, and show the interview matters to you. Kicking back says you don’t really care.
  • The candidate asks throw-away questions. Here’s the golden rule: When asked if you have any questions, don’t make a few up to try to impress me. If you have no questions, say so. Don’t ask about something you could have easily learned on your own. Don’t ask questions designed to make you look good. In short, don’t ask what you think I want to hear. Interviewers can tell, and it ends the interview on a down note.

My Story

Being in my job for a few years, i’ve conducted quite a fair number of interviews sourcing for potential candidates for my team’s position.

The article above, i feel is steered towards “ang-moh” countries culture where candidates have to voice out, while we Asians are of a more conservative and introvert bunch. Nevertheless the differences in culture, i do think that some points are still valid to an extend.

  • The candidate is late. – I have encountered quite a number of late candidates, most of them would apologize and blame it on the traffic or getting lost finding the place. I personally don’t find those as valid reasons. If it’s the traffic, you should have planned and left for the place earlier, being early in interviews doesn’t harm but being late does! Getting lost finding the place? I would be thinking, you didn’t bother to prepare enough – don’t you do a search in google map or before you come down? Of course, if either map does not detect the place, maybe the office is new or restricted area access, i would think it’s still excusable. I just don’t like people who blame others for things that doesn’t goes right, but themselves.

The worst lot – who don’t inform that they are going to be late, arrived without a word of apology

  • The candidate complains. – Don’t complain at the slightest bit, you’re being judged at all different perspective. I wouldn’t want to hire a potential pessimistic and brings negativity influence to my team members.
  • The candidate tries to take charge.  – Employers need people who can lead and follow. It’s ok if you can’t lead, at least you can follow. But if you just want to lead without following, maybe a CEO position would be a more suitable job for you.
  • Honesty – If you do not have experience in this area, you better not act like you know it. We can easily throw some technical questions to you and the way you answer it, we know how good you are. And if given a range to rate yourself on how good you are at the skill, especially you are a fresh graduate with not much experiences, probably just FYP, don’t give yourself a rating of > 8 / 10. We’ll admire your confidence very much, but sorry, we Asians need humble and realistic people.

I think different interviewers have different expectations and opinions, sometimes you just need some luck that you’ll meet the interviewer who has the same values as you are.

Reasons why delegation is hard for some managers

by Cody Hodge

Created on: March 30, 2010   Last Updated: May 17, 2010

Why is delegation hard for some managers? Delegation, or the handing off of tasks to others, is something that a good manager needs to do in order to succeed. However, it can be hard for some managers to hand tasks off to other employees to complete. There are many good reasons why a manager might not feel comfortable delegating assignments to others, but there are many good reasons why a manager has to be able to delegate.

The first reason some managers might not like to delegate is because some might not be used to it. Maybe they have worked as an employee for their whole careers, so they don’t know anything other than doing the job themselves. From experience, I can tell you that it can be hard to pass off work to others when you first start off as a manager.

Another reason why managers don’t always like to delegate is that some managers just don’t trust the other people on the crew to do the job. Perhaps the manager feels like if they don’t do the job themselves that it won’t get done and it won’t be done right either. That can be a major issue between employees and management if they don’t ever get the chance to do their own jobs.

Managers might feel bad about delegating jobs to other employees because they feel like they should do most of the work. While a manager should be able to do whatever it takes to get the job done, it can be a hindrance if the boss decides to do the entire job themselves. The boss might think they are doing a good thing by saving others the work, but it usually doesn’t look good to the upper managers.

Sometimes managers are just loathe to show too much authority. Managers sometimes try to be the friend of the employee as opposed to the boss of the employee. They might worry that an employee might be upset that they were asked to do something, or another employee might get upset that they weren’t asked to perform that task.

It might sound fun that you can tell others to do your work for you, but it isn’t always something that people want to do. Some people actually have a problem with making others do work, or feel like they are shorting others if they are making them do work. Ultimately, the manager who can’t delegate will end up not being a manager for much longer.

My Story

I believe capable new managers or senior staffs would encounter this problem of delegating work to others especially to your juniors or subordinates. I used to encounter this as well, like what the article above mentioned:

  1. I’m not used to delegating as when i started working, i did the job all by myself
  2. I felt bad about delegating work to others as the work landed on my plate, i should be the one doing it
  3. I didn’t want to be an example of bad managers where they know nothing and when works needs to be done, they simply just assign it to someone else to work on it (how simple life would that be!)
  4. I think i can complete the work faster and there’s less chances of screwing up the work as compared to the juniors
  5. Felt that training someone takes up more time than completing the actual work by myself

What happened

Since i had people under me, i was “forced” to delegate some work to them as i myself would not want someone who comes to work, do nothing and just look at me working.

So what i started doing was:

  •  To only delegate simple, easy and fast to complete work to others, while i did those time-consuming and difficult work by myself

My superior would have thought that since there’s someone helping me, i should be given two person’s workload, and gradually, more work comes in.

Till a point where i almost could not complete them on time, while i had no other choices, but to delegate the work to others. Crossing fingers, trusting them and giving them the benefit of doubt that they would complete them on time with minimum screw ups.


It was then, i realized:

  1. I should have delegated the work earlier so they would have more time to work on *guilt*
  2. People are happier with more important tasks assigned to them which shows their capabilities
  3. I felt a sigh of relieve after delegating the work, since work is spread out to different people, i don’t need to shoulder everything by myself
  4. Surprisingly, if you think you can complete the work fast, others can complete even faster than you, you won’t know until you delegated
  5. I’m able to see a bigger and clearer picture, rather than focusing on completing the tasks
  6. Although training takes up more time, but once the person knows how to do it, they can be of so much help in the future – think ahead!

There’s so much more reasons why delegation is good and of course, you’ll need to know who is a more suitable candidate to delegate the work so the right person does the right work!

So why are you still hesitating about delegating work to others? Do it as soon as you can, you’ll never know how much it benefits you and others.