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Business News/ Companies / Imperatives for high potentials
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Imperatives for high potentials

Successful high potentials are adept at mastering three key requirements: managing yourself, managing your network and managing your team


When organizations identify their rising stars and put them on a fast leadership track, the results can be unexpected and disappointing. These high potential candidates are smart, talented and ambitious people, and yet many fail to grasp the most important tenets of leadership. Having worked for more than a dozen years with these prospective leaders at Harvard Business School’s High Potentials Leadership Program, I have witnessed a recurring set of reasons why high potentials tend to derail.

Through our research and experience, we have designed the High Potentials program around three key leadership imperatives with which these future leaders tend to struggle. Given that companies often send these fast-rising executives to us with the expectation that they will soon be promoted to critical, high-level positions, it is a wake-up call for these individuals to realize that the path they are about to take is fraught with some unexpected challenges.

Successful high potentials are adept at mastering these three key requirements: managing yourself, managing your network and managing your team. We specifically rank these imperatives in this order because most people, when thinking about leadership, only identify the third imperative. Asked what leadership means to them, they respond that managing and directing the people who report to them is the essence of leadership.

In fact, successful candidates must embrace all three of these requirements in order to become effective leaders. The first imperative is fundamental because leadership, no matter how one might want to define it, is about using yourself as an instrument to get things done. It is about being a catalyst, able to match your intent with your impact. The second imperative is vital because it is all about managing the relationships with people over whom you have no formal authority, but are nonetheless deeply dependent upon to get your job done. Most people misunderstand this critical imperative. They view it as being about politics rather than a key conduit to effective leadership.

The third imperative is what most people presume leadership is about. Managing your team is the job description and, therefore, it must encompass the full responsibility of leadership. What we see time and again is that these high potentials don’t actually step back and say: “I need to look at myself as I am the instrument to leadership success and I need to include the network because that is the context within which my team operates." In fact, these three imperatives are inextricably interrelated and without a clear embrace of all three, high potentials are likely to fail.

So why do so many high potentials run into difficulties while trying to learn to lead? It turns out that the very talent and intellect that makes most high potential candidates to become leaders can also be their undoing.

For example, high potentials don’t decide to learn to lead because of something they read in a management book or heard in a TED Talk. They are apt to learn to lead out of necessity. If you are talented, energetic and ambitious, you tend to get a lot done by yourself. You are, in fact, a star for that very reason. It might well take you longer to understand or feel the need to delegate because you can get so much done yourself. And you enjoy it and have plenty of energy, and fail to see the urgency of bringing others into the equation.

What we often see with high potentials is that they don’t actually need to work with other people. The longer this goes on in a person’s career, the more it stymies them from becoming leaders when the time is finally at hand and they have an urgent need to delegate.

In addition, when you are extremely smart and good at something, you become what is referred to as a quick study. While this skill is valuable, it can also lead to incomplete analysis of a situation. The high potential thinks, “I’ve already seen that person or that situation before and I know what must be done." A prospective leader will often act quickly based on his experience and assumptions, but we have seen that an effective leader must slow down his thinking so that he can understand these assumptions and conclusions more completely. He must recognize that he may well have come to these conclusions without clearly and thoroughly thinking through all the dynamics of the situation.

Acting quickly, you might miss something or not feel the need to ask more questions and this has consequences beyond the actual decision. When you don’t inquire and look like you are open to learning, people feel insulted and intimidated by that behaviour. They believe you’ve dismissed them out of hand and any significant connection you have with this peer is likely to be severed. When you actually need to delegate, you’ve already lost the people you must lead.

In many cases, high potentials encounter trouble leading people older and more experienced than themselves. You may see veteran colleagues as slow-moving impediments to your desire to reach a solution, but these people are likely to be more sensitive to being micromanaged than younger, more junior employees.

A skilful leader generates trust and respect, and most important, develops empathy. The quick study boss is unable to step into someone else’s shoes because he hasn’t had to. His quickness has always been rewarded. He has been the star who gets things done, overcomes obstacles and finds the right answers. But as a leader, that universe expands to include many others whose contributions are crucial to a successful outcome. These blind spots can create the kind of leaders who like to micromanage the people who work for them. He believes he can step in, intervene and fix any problem, regardless of the impact that such behaviour has on his direct reports.

In India, for example, executives have told me that the education system is extremely didactic. The teacher dictates, the students repeat. Thus, when an Indian manager becomes a leader, he thinks his job is to set direction and make sure no one deviates from it. The leader is more teacher than game changer. In today’s global service economy, that model of leadership simply doesn’t work.

What we strive to achieve in our program is to convince these high potentials of the need to be not just deep, but also broaden their knowledge and experience. They need to be T-shaped and manage their careers in a way that allows them to become better strategic thinkers and collaborators. If you’ve been successful at building healthy relationships with your bosses—as most high potentials are—you may have been less successful building these same kinds of relationships with your peers. The competitive environment among peers is real, but you have to manage that competition and figure out how to build healthy relationships with these peers. It is a key prerequisite to becoming a game changer.

Ultimately, high potentials must make the time to focus on what is most important and not fall prey to cynicism about the workplace. You have to feel that this is important and is not just politics. Managing your network is not an ancillary facet of your leadership role, it is at the heart of your responsibility as a leader. You are building this network of relationships with people who can actually serve as your personal board of directors and help you with your own development over time. Leaders who become game changers master these imperatives early in their careers and turn them into career-long assets.

Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She is the faculty chair of the HBS Leadership Initiative. She will teach Maximizing Your Leadership Potential—India, from 14-17 December 2015.

©2015 Harvard Business School. All rights reserved.

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Updated: 02 Dec 2015, 02:33 AM IST
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