When Identifying High Potentials, Don’t Be a Magpie

Published on 2017-03-09

THE MAGPIE IS A BIRD WITH A SPECIFIC weakness. If you ever find a magpie’s nest, you are sure to find it littered with a curious collection of candy wrappers, silver foil, and coloured ribbons. The magpie has an uncontrollable attraction to bright and gleaming items. It has no interest in anything that doesn’t shine. It simply cannot help its eyes being drawn to radiant objects.
Managers must be careful not to display magpie-like behavior when identifying high potentials. The tendency to be blinded by the glare of the high performers is an issue common to most companies and all industries.
Everyone sees the high performers. They top the sales charts. They are lauded for their latest patents. They are the example to the rest of the team. They are the benchmark for success. Managers love these high achievers, and for good reason. Companies demand results and these guys are the most likely to get them.
Look around the offices of any multinational and you are certain to see posters and video screens exclaiming the need to ‘DRIVE FOR RESULTS’ or ‘INCREASE MARKET SHARE’. Without these aims, there will be no growth and businesses will die. However, the constant bombardment of these messages can affect managers’ abilities to identify high potentials.
When managers are asked to shortlist team members who should move up in the company, they are often, quite naturally, compelled to name their high performers. When asked to give reasons for their choice, we often hear phrases such as “They achieve the best results”, “They are hard workers” and more disturbingly “If we do not promote them, they might leave.”
There are two issues to address here. Firstly, achieving results and working hard are actually company expectations rather than abilities that separate normal staff from exceptional ones. High performance should certainly be highlighted, praised and rewarded with bonuses, but does not on its own justify being classed as a high potential. Secondly, putting people forward for development and promotion based solely on a fear that they may leave if you do not, is a recipe for disaster.
High performers may well be high potentials too. However, high potentials are not always high performers in their current position. If we ignore this fact, then only high performers will be advanced in the company and many high potentials will be missed, become disillusioned and then lost.
A staff member who is identified as a high potential should have displayed signs that they have the skill sets that would enable them to contribute to the company’s success at a more senior level. It is difficult to find something if you do not know what you are looking for, so it is vital that HR and Talent Development Managers create search criteria to assist managers in the identification process. These guidelines should act as ‘sunglasses’ to help managers see through the glare from the high performers.
Common qualities that we should be looking for in high potentials might include:
Communication Skill

The list of criteria will change slightly depending on the potential career path of the high potential. However, even this most basic guideline should give managers a reason to think twice before automatically putting forward their high performers. Pushing managers to look at more than just the current performance should make the search for high potentials both fairer and more productive.
The need for companies to have a consistent talent pipeline is greater than ever. This will continue to be the case whenever individuals within an organization feel ignored and decide that their development is better served by moving company. Many of the HR people in China who are currently reading this will be dealing with the annual post-bonus migration of staff to rival companies. Identifying talent is the first and most important step in talent retention. Putting guidelines in place now will reap huge benefits down the line.
Do not fall into the trap of magpie behavior. By all means, look at the bright lights of the high performers, but don’t limit your search. Be ready to look in the shadows and you will find that often that is where the real stars are to be found.