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Should we assess engagement levels when assessing high potentials?

October 9, 2012

As a fan of Harvard Business Review, I recently read an article regarding talent management; it was entitled, ‘How to hang on to your high potentials: Emerging best practices in managing your company’s future leaders’ (HBR, Oct 2011).

The article started by stating that only 15% of businesses based in Asia and North America feel that they have enough ‘qualified successors for key positions’. This increases to 30% in Europe, but still that isn’t a high percentage, is it?! Given that the CIPD definition of ‘talent management’ is the “systematic attraction, identification, development, engagement, retention and deployment of those individuals who are of particular value to an organisation, either in view of their ‘high potential’ for the future or because they are fulfilling business/operation-critical roles” then the situation may be a little concerning when thinking about the future successes of businesses.

Talent management is not something that is easy to do. As per the CIPD definition, it encompasses a number of, often thought of as, HR related issues: recruitment, development, engagement, training, reward and recognition etc. One of these issues is often enough to tackle at one time but for talent management it seems an all encompassing program is required, but beforehand one needs to begin by identifying those of ‘high potential’, again something that isn’t a clear cut process.

Thankfully, Egon Zehnder International have developed a model for assessing executive potential which can provide a great starting point. They have a model which consists of 5 concentric circles. At the core of the model is ‘motives – the desire to have a positive impact on others’. This is something that is considered hard to change. Next circle is ‘leadership assets – demonstrates insight, engages others, demonstrates resolve, seeks understanding’. At the next level there is ‘senior executive identity – accepting the costs of the executive position, seeing yourself as a senior executive’. Wrapped around these elements are ‘skills – what the executive can do’ and ‘knowledge – what the executive knows’, which as they are furthest out from the core are considered the easiest to change.

This model makes intuitive sense. As is noted in the article, all elements have a major impact on whether a manager will be capable in a certain situation. It is clear that ‘high levels of competence alone can propel some people to some success and some promotions but won’t be enough to sustain them in large leadership roles’ (p81). At Employee Feedback this closely mirrors our employee engagement thinking, one needs a combination of capability and motivation to become fully engaged in the workplace. I wonder whether the most appropriate starting place for talent management to kick off then would be by focusing on employee engagement first, identify those who are willing to go the extra miles, arguably those who already have the hardest to change ‘motives’ layer of the model, and then assess whether they have the capability to become someone of ‘high potential’. It seems to me from reading much of the work around talent management that capability is the thing that is assessed first as much of the focus is around the skills and the knowledge of an individual, but perhaps this should be turned on its head and motivation and engagement assessed at the outset...any views on this?


Fernandez-Araoz, C. Groysberg, B. Nohria, N. (2011). How to hang on to your high potentials. Harvard Business Review, October 2011

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