Five “Superhero” Reasons Why Your HiPo Initiatives May Not Be Working

October 9, 2018

Five “Superhero” Reasons Why Your HiPo Initiatives May Not Be Working

It’s safe to say that the world has a fascination with superheroes. So far in 2018, four of the top five grossing movies are about superheroes, they feature in commercials for leading brands and there’s even a Smithsonian course on the “Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture.” Through the comics of the 1930s and more recently the mediums of TV and film, superheroes have long been a part of popular culture. And there is little sign of this fascination abating.

Many have explored the reasons for this fascination but one of the common explanations is that they give us a sense of hope. The notion that superheroes possess superpowers that enable them to overcome any adversity creates optimism that we can solve even the most impossible problems.

While you might not think about it this way, many organizations adopt a “superhero” approach to leadership, often using terms like high-potential or HiPo program. These high-potential initiatives focus on developing a small group of people, or superheroes, who are prepared to take on any challenge.

High-potential initiatives were introduced in the late ’90s as a response to the traditional approach to succession management based on replacement planning. While replacement planning had been adequate for a relatively stable business context and environment where employees were prepared to stay loyal to a company for many years, high-potential pools recognized the the need to prepare a group of select individuals for a business context that was constantly changing. If you could place a differential investment in those high-potential individuals, they could be deployed against critical business needs as they arose.

The concept was and remains sound, and for the last 10-15 years companies have invested heavily in these initiatives. According to DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2018 research—produced in partnership with The Conference Board and EY—companies on average spend $4,000 and 39 hours per high-potential leader. For organizations with 1,000 high-potential leaders, this translates to an annual investment of more than $4 million and 4,800 person-days.

However, the results have been less than stellar. The same study showed that while 65 percent of companies have high-potential initiatives, 68 percent of those companies say they are not very effective. Furthermore, these results have not shifted much in the last 10 years; the bright promise of these programs has given way to several barriers that prevent organizations from leveraging the full benefit of these initiatives.

Here are five superhero reasons why your high-potential initiatives may not be working, and some tips on what to do about it:
1.    Superheroes Are Not Real. The prevailing view is that high-potential pools account for around 3-5 percent of a company’s leadership population. However, larger pools, including as many as 32 percent of an organization’s total leader population, tend to be more effective. Additionally, those organizations that extend development of high-potential talent below senior levels are 4.2 times more likely to outperform those that don’t. So, while the notion of a small group of superheroes might sound appealing, releasing the power of a larger group of leaders is shown to have a far more positive impact on the program and leadership readiness. 

2.    Even Superheroes Need to Refine their Powers. While many superheroes are born with their superpowers, most take time to understand and leverage their powers. Other superheroes like Batman and Iron Man are not born with superpowers but develop and refine them over time.  Yet too often, high-potential programs begin and end with a superhero-style classification (often through a nine-box process) that focuses only on identification of potential, while doing little to support the development and growth of individuals. CEB/Gartner research found that as many as 55 percent of high-potentials don’t complete their developmental plans. For this reason, it’s better for organizations to refer to their high-potential pools as “acceleration pools,” which focuses not on the fact that people have been simply identified as having potential, but that they need growth opportunities to accelerate their readiness through targeted development.
3.    Avengers, Fantastic Four, or Justice League?
Having observed high-potential pools across numerous organizations, one of the common challenges organizations face is where the pool starts to resemble a club rather than an accelerated development experience. When organizations identify a group of high-potentials but do little or nothing to support their development, the only thing individuals take from the pool is their status as a “HiPo.”  The focus on status rather than growth can be detrimental to those in the pool (the “haves”) and for those outside the pool (the “have-nots”) who can feel disengaged and disillusioned.    

4.    The Kryptonite Effect. In the Superman stories, exposure to the element Kryptonite weakens Superman’s powers. High-potential status can often have the same effect on people. If I were to pick one element that is core to an individual’s suitability for a high-potential pool, it is their mindset—the degree to which they bring a fixed or growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset tend to view basic abilities, like intelligence or competence as fixed. Those with a growth mindset view ability as something that can be cultivated and developed, fueling a passion for learning and development rather than a hunger for approval. 

This concept draws on the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck who found that praising someone for their achievement can activate a fixed mindset while praising someone for their effort can activate a growth mindset. When we tell someone that they are a high-potential, we may activate a fixed mindset in them as they begin to seek to protect their status rather than take the risks necessary for growth and development. Essentially, we weaken the power that made them eligible for the high-potential program in the first place…thus, high-potential status becomes their Kryptonite.

5.    Alter Egos Make for a Great Disguise. It’s easy to recognize a superhero when they’re decked out in capes and spandex. But few suspect that the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent is really Superman, or that an army nurse named Diana Prince moonlighted as Wonder Woman. In our high-potential programs, too often we look for the obvious candidates who remind us of the superheroes we’ve known in the past, which  reinforces common stereotypes and biases. As a result, many people with potential are overlooked. In the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, we found that women account for just 24 percent of high-potential participants. This is particularly problematic at a time when organizations strive to build and leverage greater diversity in their leadership ranks.  Furthermore, organizations need to cultivate a much broader range of people with different skill sets, personalities, and perspectives to help them compete in a rapidly changing business environment. They need to start looking at the Clark Kents and Diana Princes to see their true potential.

Considering these barriers here are five tips to ensure your high-potential initiative doesn’t lose its superpowers.

  • Carefully consider how you communicate to high-potentials. Individuals entering a pool need to understand their responsibility and role in the accelerated development experience. 
  • Ensure that ‘acceleration’ becomes the focus of your initiatives and programs. Acceleration is a business imperative and therefore organizations need to create opportunities to accelerate the growth of individuals. Don’t let identification be the beginning and end of your initiative, while leaving development to individual curiosity and/or chance. 
  • Break the bias and subjectivity that often limits opportunities for different individuals and groups. Better equip managers with the tools, insights, and skills to scout for potential. Also consider using objective assessments that may help you spot potential in people who may otherwise be overlooked. On a larger scale, you should consider creating initiatives that raise the profile of groups that may be facing barriers.
  • Actively manage the pools to ensure they don’t become clubs. Acceleration pools are critical business assets. Devote the necessary time and resources to manage them like you would manage any other critical business asset.
  • Consider establishing high-potential pools and initiatives that fall outside of the leadership domain. For example, create pools that recognize specialist capabilities essential to future success or pools that focus in on capabilities relevant to the emerging business landscape (e.g., digital and disruption).

While it’s tempting to go on believing that a small group of superheroes can take on the full burden of tackling the company’s biggest business challenges, the reality is that organizations that rely on this strategy aren’t getting the results they need. Rethinking your high-potential initiatives to be more about developing a broad range of people with a variety of skillsets and perspectives is a much stronger way to prepare your organization for the future.

The Authors: 

Mark Busine is general manager at global leadership company DDI.