Potential – What is it and How Do You Find It?

You’d be surprised to know how many companies craft a high-potential development program without ever having defined what potential means.  In Fernandez-Araoz, Groysberg and Nohria’s look at how to retain your top talent, they define potential as a person’s ability to grow and handle responsibilities of greater scale and scope. “Greater scale” is a job in the same area but with increased budget or staff, while “greater scope” is a job that involves activities that demand more breadth and complexity.  This definition of potential may or may not suit your organization – take some time to craft an accurate meaning of potential considering your culture and process.

There is a basic model for assessing executive potential developed by Egon Zehnder International that contains five elements ordered from the most difficult to change, to the highly teachable.

The first and most difficult to change is an individual’s motives – these predict consistent patterns of behavior, tend to be stable, and are relatively unconscious.  The most compelling motive a senior executive potential can have is a desire for socialized influence – having a positive impact on others for the good of the organization.  Positive work experiences and wise mentorship can help improve employee motives.

The second is a set of abilities called leadership assets that often predict executive growth – derives insight and applies new ideas, engages others, demonstrates resolve, and seeks understanding.

The third is a strong sense of self that envisions success and has a passion for making things happen.

The final two characteristics are skills and knowledge which can be acquired by anyone eager to learn and apply themselves.

These first three indicators are vital to being a high potential – and are the most difficult to change and learn.  Can you identify any of these characteristics in your employees?  Do you have a program in place to identify and retain your high-potentials?


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