by Paul Vorster A recent interview with Dr. Robert Hogan has given psychologists and HR professionals some insight into the selection of high-potential candidates. Dr. Hogan discusses what defines a high-potential candidate; how companies fail to identify high-potential candidates; how to identify high-potential candidates; informing high-potential candidates that they are high-potential; developing high-potential candidates; and the difference between leadership potential and being a good leader.

Who is Dr. Robert Hogan?

Dr. Robert Hogan is the founder and president of Hogan Assessment Systems. He has published over 300 articles, was Professor of Psychology and Social Relations at Johns Hopkins University, and the McFarlin Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Tulsa. Hogan Assessment Systems is well-known for the distributing the following psychological assessments: Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), Hogan Development Survey (HDS), Motives, Values, Preferences, Inventory (MVPI), Matrigma, and the Hogan Business Reasoning Inventory (HBRI). These assessments are used extensively for selection, placement, development, succession planning, and coaching. Dr. Hogan is a keen supporter of and contributor to socio-analytic theory, which proposes that humans live and work in groups, and therefore need certain social behaviours/capacities in order to survive and thrive in most environments. The work environment is one such socio-analytical context where people constantly have to interact with others in order to accomplish tasks, solve problems, and meet goals. In these environments the ‘reputation’ of the individual is more important than his/her ‘identity’, as it is the way others see the individual that determines work performance and success.

Q: What defines a high-potential candidate?

A: Dr. Robert Hogan: The question is what defines a high-potential candidate? Perhaps the question is why do they matter? The answer is that the distribution of productive employees is not symmetrical. About 20% of the people in every organisation account for about 80% of the productivity. It doesn’t matter if it’s sales, if it’s car mechanics, if it’s customer service reps: 20% of the people do 80% of the work and 20% of the people cause 80% of the problems. So it really matters getting those issues right. Given that most thoughtful people will think that the correct management of high-potential employees is the key to the future, it is and should be, a company’s most competitive advantage.

Q: What is the difference between employability and high-potential?

A: High potential has been a hot topic in HR and Human Capital Management circles for several years, but mostly it’s just talk. People haven’t addressed the issues in a careful, analytical or rigorous way. You think of high-potential in terms of five components. The first thing is, can a person get a job and keep a job. It’s called basic employability and there are three components to basic employability. The first thing is that the person has to be rewarding to deal with. You have to enjoy being around them, and that’s just basic interpersonal skills. The second thing is that the person has to be able to learn and perform the job. They have to be smart enough to figure out what’s going on on-the-job and do it. Typically, that’s on the job training, very few training programmes are of any use, mostly you learn the job by doing it. The third thing is that the person must be willing to do the job. As George Bush senior used to say 90% of life is just showing up. So, are they rewarding to deal with, are they able to learn and do the job, and are they willing to do the job? That’s basic employability. That gets them in the door and keeps them employed. Many bright people are just unpleasant; they are egotistical, arrogant and abrasive. Smarts won’t do it. So, basic employability is the building block and high-potential then builds on that. The next thing you need is some desire, some talent, for management. We just call that ambition. Do they want to be in charge? High-potential refers to whether the person has the potential to move to the top of the hierarchy in your organisation. In the HR world high-potential refers to whether a person has the talent to become senior management. So they need to be employable, and they need to want to get ahead because there are a lot of pleasant people who would rather not be bothered with senior management. The final thing is global mind-set. The essence of global mind-set is being open-minded, tolerant, and curious about other things, as opposed to being parochial, narrow-minded and dogmatic.

Q: How are companies failing to identify high potential employees?

A: Most companies, virtually every company, fails in the process of identifying high potential for a very simple reason. They confuse doing a good job in your present position with the potential to do a good job in a position that has expanded responsibilities. Ninety percent of the people who are doing a good job in their current job will fail when they get promoted. So, the first mistake they make is confusing performance with the potential for future performance. The second mistake, which in my view is a big mistake, is just internal politics. Lots and lots of people get designated high-potential because senior management has an agenda. In about 70% of the cases people get designated as high-potential purely for political reasons.

Q: How should companies identify high-potential employees?

A: There is 70-year-old literature on the question of identifying how to choose people for jobs. There are two answers. There’s the popular answer and there’s the right answer. The popular answer is that somebody makes a decision based on their experience, their intuition, and their perceptions about this person’s potential. That’s to say they pull the decision right out of the air. That’s called the clinical tradition in making decisions about people. The alternative to that is what we call the actuarial tradition which is choosing people for jobs based on hard, statistically validated assessment results. In the history of the world, 90% of decisions are made for the wrong reasons and maybe 10% of the decisions are made for the right reasons, namely statistical reasons. The data are perfectly clear on this. If you use validated assessments to make decisions about who to promote, who to hire and who to place you will do better. But, inside organisations it’s about politics all the time and nobody really cares about maximising the outcomes for the good of the organisation, they are mostly concerned about maximising the outcomes for their own careers.

Q: Should high-potential employees know that they have been identified as such?

A: The question is should you tell high-potentials that they have been identified as high-potentials? The answer is that you better tell them, otherwise they will quit. They are going to be vain like everybody else. The real high-potentials know they are outperforming the other people and they are just wondering whether anybody else is noticing. They key to the whole thing is letting them know we know how good they are and we appreciate what they are doing for us. So, by all means you need to tell them that they have a lot of potential for advancement in this organisation. You get to be ‘hi-po’ of the day, star of tomorrow.

Q: How should companies handle employees who are not designated as having high potential?

A: What you do if they are not high potential? You tell them, if you do a good job you have a lot of employment over here and we will do anything we can to help you with your career. But, we don’t see you as being in the line of progression to be the next CEO. A lot of people just don’t want the aggravation associated with senior management.

Q: How do you recommend developing high-potential employees?

A: There are three key steps in developing high-potential employees. The first thing is, try not to surround them with mediocre players. Try to put them in a cohort of talented players. That’s important because talented people don’t like hanging out with losers. Second, try not to force your high-potentials to work for an incompetent boss. Since the base rate of incompetent management is about 70% you’re going to have to be extremely cautious to avoid making these talented people work for an incompetent boss. The third thing is that the best single way to develop a high-potential is to put them into a position where they have to manage people. Then give them feedback on their performance as a manager. There is just no alternative to that. Talented people can learn from their mistakes, losers can’t learn from their mistakes.

Q: What is the difference between leadership potential and actually being a good leader?

A: You can look at somebody and say that he/she has a lot of potential for leadership, but you won’t know if they have talent for it until they have actually got the job. You may have the potential to do…whatever, but until you have actually done it… But, I am a fan of the concept of potential. That’s where you start, and then you test your hypothesis.