When Does Potential Turn Into Results?

By Tacy Byham

“You can’t eat potential.”

It’s a great quote from the late Nobel Prize winner Dr. Norman Borlaug. He was known for being the “father” of the Asian Green Revolution by creating high-yielding wheat varieties that were designed to help avert the pending food crisis as population growth exploded in Asia in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Dr. Borlaug knew, however, that the potential of his new wheat varieties wouldn’t be enough to save people from famine. Governments would need to support small famers with credit, fertilizer, fair markets, roads, irrigation, and so forth to enable them to actualize on the potential of the new crops. With Borlaug’s advocacy for government policy to support the new science, Asian farmers exponentially multiplied their crop output, saving hundreds of millions of lives.

This story reminds me of how we look at leadership potential. For decades, talent professionals have invested previous time and resources to identify high potential leaders. But the most recent Global Leadership Forecast shows that despite 65 percent of companies having high-potential programs, 68 percent say they’re not very effective.

The reasons why high-potential programs are failing ties back to how we define potential, where we look for it, and what we do with it. The traditional school of thought behind high-potential initiatives is to focus efforts on developing a select few people who are chosen for their early demonstration of leadership skills. What this “top of the house” mentality leaves out are the people below the senior-most ranks—many of whom fly under the radar and never get the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership potential.

Even though it goes against what we think is right, organizations that focus their high-potential efforts below the senior level—opening their high-potential pool to as much as 32 percent of the organization’s total leader population—tend to have more effective programs. What’s more, again according to the Global Leadership Forecast, these organizations are 4.2 times more likely to financially outperform organizations that restrict their high-potential programs to the exclusive few at the top.

While stocking the pool with more leaders is a good first step, it’s not a silver bullet for success. Change will come as the result of taking action to fulfill the potential that you’ve identified.

For actionable tips on how to get results from your high-potential program, check out my full blog post, “6 Ways to Make Your High-Potential Program a High Performer.

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