What do high-potential employees describe as their core challenges? And what areas of development must they address as they climb the corporate ladder?
To better understand these challenges, we examined more than 3,000 applications and sponsor statements for those who were admitted to Harvard Business School’s flagship High Potentials Leadership Program (HPLP) from 2003 through 2021. The admissions team asked applicants to identify their primary leadership challenge, their objectives for attending the program, and their leadership style and approach. Sponsors were asked to identify the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses, outline their reasons for the nomination, and articulate their goals for the applicant.
Our analysis shed light on the ways in which companies assess the strengths and developmental needs of their executives on the fast track, as well as the ways in which these executives define their core challenges. These insights can inform how managers can support their fast-track executives to reach their full potential and how organizations can drive the content and delivery of leadership development programs.
Key Challenges Facing High Potentials
Over nearly 20 years, the high potentials in our program have consistently identified five consistent leadership challenges:
- Leading teams
- Leading change
- Leadership style
- Leading at scale
- Driving business results
More than 30% of high potentials cited leading teams as their core challenge. “My biggest leadership challenge is determining methods for leading team members,” one 2005 executive noted. “Each team member’s background is different and each one is driven differently. I must then manage differently.”
Fifteen years later, high potentials noted the added complexity of leading global teams remotely. “Having enough time to develop employees while advancing organizational goals is a real challenge especially in a virtual environment,” as one 2020 program participant said.
For the most part, men and women cited similar leadership challenges. However, women were more likely than men to cite “leadership style” as a challenge. As one woman noted: “I struggle with my leadership style. I am a very driven, see the end goal, and often think that everyone else around me should be able to do the same. When giving direction or communicating to members on my team, it can sometimes come across as being parental and directive. Although I am highly regarded and respected, I want to make sure that my leadership style continues to be one of encouragement, motivation, and development versus one that turns people off and they therefore do not want to follow me and my vision.”
What Got You Here Will Not Get You There
Transforming from individual contributor to team leader can be quite difficult. Over the past 20 years, sponsors pointed to two key strengths — an ability to drive results and functional or technical expertise — as the central reasons for identifying and nominating employees as high potentials.
But to reach the next level, high potentials who’ve been rewarded for personal accomplishments must learn to recalibrate to a definition of success based on the team’s collective performance. Relying on a past track record of success will not be enough as high potentials grapple with the scale, scope, and complexity of more senior general management roles.
Stepping up to higher levels of leadership requires six key skills, according to the managers in our data set:
- Strategic management
- Emotional intelligence
- Leading at scale
- Leading teams
- Relationship management
As the sponsors in our data set considered the next step for their high potentials, they often cited the need for high potentials to have a broader vision and a deeper sense of the strategic and competitive landscape. They noted that the technical and functional skills that enabled high potentials to excel may in fact impede their ability to see the “big picture.” As one manager wrote, “Calvin’s* weakness is seeing the bigger picture of how what he manages affects the entire organization.”
In addition to widening their apertures, high potentials also need to expand their emotional intelligence and communication skills. A representative comment from a sponsor said, “John has very strong hard skills. He is strong in operations, sales, and leading the development of new technology, but he must improve his soft skills. He has a big blind spot in terms of how he treats people.” Sponsors in our sample were more likely to identify strategic management as a developmental opportunity for women and emotional intelligence as a developmental opportunity for men.
How Organizations Can Develop High Potentials
As organizations search for ways to ensure that their high potentials fulfill their promise, they must be prepared to equip them with the ability to think and act more strategically, to lead with greater conviction, and to cultivate and nurture relationships. In essence, organizations must create the scaffolding that allows high potentials to simultaneously develop the macro skills of strategy and the micro skills of interpersonal relationships.
Our analysis pointed to three clear priorities as organizations look to develop their high potentials:
1. Measure high potentials against specific competencies to help expand their leadership style.
While most high potentials have experience managing small teams, their next career step will likely involve leading larger teams, where they won’t have the ability to regularly interact with every team member. As high potentials step up to leading at scale and scope, they must create the conditions that enable the team to operate effectively without their daily presence. This involves developing the operational platforms and incentives to reinforce positive behaviors; supporting and cultivating a vibrant and healthy culture; and creating a context that enables team members to grow, develop, and produce.
Managers can support this effort by tracking high potentials’ progress against key leadership competencies, such as team management, relationship building, and communication. In particular, a high potential’s ability to lead effective teams, inspire and motivate others, and articulate a compelling vision are dependent on their ability to successfully communicate. While they may be effective in small team meetings or one-on-one interactions, they must also excel at communicating at scale and scope. This requires demonstrating confidence, conviction, and clarity.
2. Help high potentials increase their emotional intelligence.
As one moves up in their career, they must often rely on others to get the work done, and that requires trust, support, and guidance. In essence, it requires emotional intelligence, and two central tenants of emotional intelligence that are critical for high potentials are self-awareness and empathy. Numerous research studies have identified a link between self-aware leaders and climates that are open, supportive, and productive. As such, programs and experiences that enable high potentials to increase their self-awareness are critical. This can be accomplished through feedback, assessments, role plays and video recordings.
Along with self-awareness, empathy is core to the ability to manage conflict successfully, to coach and mentor subordinates, and to motivate and inspire others. It’s also been shown to be essential to cross-cultural teams. Despite its strengths, empathy can often be a victim of one’s hyper focus on results and achievement. Paradoxically, while empathy tends to decline as one moves up, that is when it is most needed, especially when one is leading and not doing.
While many believe that empathy is something that you either have or don’t, it can be learned, but it requires dedicated behavioral change. By focusing on inquiry, developing active listening skills, acknowledging different perspectives, and demonstrating genuine concern, high potentials can hone their skills in empathy.
3. Encourage a learning mindset.
Moving from a core technical or specific functional area to a general management role requires high potentials to see how various functions interact and how their organization’s strategic imperatives are influenced by and influence the prevailing contextual landscape. Leaders would benefit from the development of contextual intelligence — the ability to understand the context and adapt one’s style and approach. This requires moving outside one’s comfort zone (e.g., core technical area) and adapting a learning mindset.
Developing and cultivating a learning mindset requires an openness to new experiences, a sense of curiosity and inquiry, and a willingness to question one’s assumptions, biases, and perspectives. Organizations can support the development of these capabilities by fostering a culture of psychological safety and risk taking. They can also provide high potentials with the opportunity to contribute to strategic initiatives outside their core functional area, allow them to participate in scenario planning and projection analyses, and offer them stretch opportunities in new markets or new product/service areas.
. . .
While high potentials have been recognized for their results-orientation and work ethic, the next step in their leadership journey will depend on their ability to work with and through others. That success will come from a heightened focus on emotional intelligence, communication, and relationship management. To ensure the success of their high potentials, managers and organizations must provide coaching, developmental support, and stretch opportunities, and high potentials must embrace them with an open and learning-oriented mindset.
*Names have been changed.
Letty Garcia and Karina Grazina of Harvard Business School’s Leadership Initiative provided invaluable support in the collection, coding, and analysis of the data for this article.
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