HBR asks: Are “High Potential” Programs an Anachronism?

In a blog post on the Harvard Business Review website, Tammy Erikson examines whether “high potential” programs designed to identify and coach employees who are destined to rise in the organization are out of step with the workforce that is coming of age today. Flatter, less hierarchical organizations might benefit more from recognizing “lateral career paths” (ie, cross training to keep employees interested and engaged in the organization).

Erikson writes:

Singling out a few people for development doesn’t work for corporations because the practice doesn’t recognize the shifting nature of its employee population, the work being done, and the future leadership needs.

And as the target for hi-po programs shifts to members of Gen X or Gen Y, I find these programs don’t do much for the people selected either. Being labeled “high potential” works with Boomers. We may not like it, but the truth is, if we’re selected, it’s one more sign that we’re winning in our over-populated, competitive world. And if we’re not, it’s a powerful incentive to try harder next year.

But all this competitive ranking and rating falls flat with many X’ers and Y’s. It’s not even that they don’t like it — they don’t get it. It doesn’t seem relevant. For many, it assumes a set of career goals and a path to get there that they don’t necessarily share.

Given the mercurial nature of employment relationships (today’s employer is just a launching pad for tomorrow’s employer) and the research pointing to the importance of employee engagement, developing peer leadership in the lower levels of the organization may be a better talent management and retention strategy than selecting a few “high-performers” (whose selections often have less to do with merit and more with political acumen), even if such a strategy is harder to plot on an org chart.

Read Erikson’s article on the Harvard Business Review website.

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