In the summer of 1991, 47-year-old preschool director Linda Reimer was looking for a no-pressure, part-time summer job to occupy her spare time and earn a little extra cash. She soon found a gig paying $5 an hour copying blueprints at Design Basics Inc., one of the nation's leading home-plan design companies. At the time, Reimer had no towering aspirations for her new position. But as she got into the job, her natural proclivities took over.
"I'm always looking for better ways to do things, so I started experimenting with products and programs." Her initiative caught the attention of Dennis Brozak, the company's owner, who hired her full time in 1994.
For the next three years, he gave her increasingly demanding assignments, such as starting an HR department from scratch and launching the company's first magazine for customers. One test led to another, and soon, she was named vice president. In 1997, when Brozak was ready to scale back his day-to-day duties, he named Reimer president. Today, she is still running the Omaha, NE-based company, which generates $5 to $7 million in annual sales and employs 50 people.
What makes Reimer's story so striking is the rarity with which an ascent like hers occurs in the work world. "Too many times, people in authority don't look at someone like me," she says. "When they want to turn over the reins, they look for someone next in line—those at the VP or director level. I had no architectural background, no industry experience, no marketing background. But Dennis was willing to take a chance on me."
She argues that too many companies troll for the usual suspects when looking for high potentials within their ranks. Matt Paese, who is VP for executive solutions at Development Dimensions International (DDI), a global human resources consulting firm with headquarters in Bridgeville, PA, agrees. Indeed, the problem with many high-potential identification systems in place today, he says, is that they too often get the definition of a high potential wrong, which invariably causes companies to overlook the latent talent that exists right under their noses.
Finding these undiscovered stars makes sense. It's not only cheaper and less time-consuming to cultivate talent internally, it's also less risky, according to Ohio-based Westfield Insurance Chief HR Officer Debra Lyons, whose organization was named one of North America's "Top Small to Mid-Size Companies for Leaders" by Hewitt Associates and FORTUNE magazine in 2007. She points to research, for example, demonstrating that leaders sourced from the outside are more likely to fail—"by a long shot"—than those sourced from the inside.
Know What to Look for
So if you suspect your pipeline is functioning more like a sluice, it may be time to mine your organization more deeply to identify those diamonds in the rough that often go unnoticed. But how?
First, recognize that unconventional high potentials aren't necessarily going to fit some standard definition of a star performer, says Paese. Some may be stuck in an entry-level position, be in the wrong job altogether, or have little opportunity to make their potential known. Others may lack the desired credentials, have a more "reserved" personality, or work for managers who take little interest in their development. And still others may be workers like Reimer, who don't even know they are interested in advancement opportunities but who, if given the chance, may wow you in unlikely ways.
For these reasons, Paese typically advises organizations intent on identifying workers who don't fit the "traditional" high-potential profile to stop relying on high performance as a "proxy" for potential. The same holds true for using "readiness" as a proxy for potential, he says. "By using job requirements for the next level up as criteria for determining potential, you will exclude people who have never had the chance to exhibit the skills you think you're looking for—but who could if someone were to invest in their development."
DDI has conducted extensive research, according to Paese, that suggests organizations are far more likely to identify high potentials they wouldn't otherwise have recognized if their identification systems are designed to scout for traits that can be observable in anyone—regardless of current job role, performance level, or skill sets. These traits generally comprise "four factors" that include qualities such as:
- Mastering complexity: Can they take the complex and make it simple? When encountering change, do they adjust quickly and focus on the positive rather than the negative?
- Personal development and learning orientation: Do they want to learn and grow? Are they receptive to feedback?
- Propensity to lead: Do they exhibit unselfish volunteerism? Do they raise their hand in times of opportunity and crisis?
- Balancing values and results: Do they get results in a way that fits with organizational culture?
Paese points to one client organization that needed to find people to fill several key VP roles. When members of the company's leadership council gathered to discuss who might be a good fit, they limited their search to director-level candidates only and examined two things: who had the highest performance and who had the highest potential. After vetting candidates accordingly, they were dismayed to find they didn't have a sufficiently large pool of viable candidates.
Out of necessity, they decided to look at employees in the echelons below the director-level rank. Someone mentioned a gentleman in his early 30s who was in a service role at the time. While younger and less experienced, he was known to be a tremendous learner and adept at navigating complexity, and he had exhibited unselfish leadership and volunteerism.
They decided to throw him into the mix, send some development opportunities his way, and take a closer look. The candidate, in turn, says Paese, "chewed up every development situation" he was thrown into, and "learned everything 10 times quicker than most people." Four years later, this erstwhile diamond in the rough is the youngest person to sit on the company's senior leadership team and has proven himself to be a "tremendous asset" to the organization.
Look in Unlikely Places
Another effective way to identify unlikely leaders is to look for them in unlikely places, according to Lois Melbourne, CEO and co-founder of Aquire Inc., an Irving, TX-based workforce planning and talent management company.
Employees who are involved in outside volunteerism, for example, often make exceptional leaders. "When someone is willing to say, 'I'll join Habitat for Humanity and spend my weekends helping others in my community,' that's a great sign you're dealing with a highly motivated, adaptable person who is willing to lead in unselfish ways." Melbourne also advises looking for instances of internal volunteerism, such as receptionists who frequently contribute stories and ideas to the company newsletter, administrative assistants and line workers who are always searching for ways to improve processes and spark innovation, and those who exhibit a tendency to raise their hand whenever the organization is looking for help or input.
Peer-to-peer employee recognition programs also can identify hidden potential. "Looking at those who receive awards and those who make a practice of nominating others can give you a strong pool of candidates to examine for high-potential qualities," Melbourne says. "Those who are willing to stand up and give others a pat on the back often make the best leaders."
If you still find yourself grasping for ways to spot undiscovered potential, try requiring your managers and supervisors to regularly sit down with each of their employees and zero in on one simple question: What is your dream job?
That's what Reimer does at Design Basics. "If you don't talk to people and create an opportunity for them to feel comfortable discussing their hopes and aspirations, you'll never know who wants to become a leader, who is willing to take on riskier assignments, and who might want to move cross-functionally within the organization."
This approach has paid off for Design Basics and its employees. That's how Reimer discovered her director of marketing wanted to start and run a new business development department. (Today, he's doing just that.) And when one of the company's toll-free operators expressed a desire to move into the company's business office, but was concerned because she didn't have any experience or training, Reimer enrolled her in a class. Today, the operator runs Design Basics' accounts receivables department.
Westfield Insurance has proven this "sit-down" strategy can work well even in larger organizations. The 2,500-employee company has a formal "career pathing" service. Employees at every level are encouraged to meet with "neutral" professionals in the HR department who specialize in leadership development to talk about what they want to do in the future and how to make it happen.
Creating the right circumstances for low-profile talent to become more visible within the organization is yet another best practice for ensuring your superstars-in-waiting don't get left in the wings.
After determining employees' interests and aspirations, for example, Reimer typically creates a position for them based on these proclivities and begins sending stretch assignments their way to see how they perform. Then, she watches to see whether they display the leadership qualities she values most. "Are they willing to try new things and come up with new ideas? Are they willing to take risks and work hard?" Most importantly, she looks for those who are committed to learning and personal growth.
Like Design Basics, Westfield Insurance uses trait-based leadership competencies (such as problem-solving, flexibility, interpersonal savvy, and learning potential) to identify the high potentials within its ranks. All leadership competencies required for advancement are broadcast to the entire organization, and competency-based training tied to each one is made available to all. Development plans typically include action items for increasing employees' visibility within the organization and with senior leaders, says Lyons. These might include rotational assignments, job shadowing, and networking activities.
Lyons herself already has lost one executive assistant—who is now a recruiter within the company—to the success of these programs, and she likely soon will lose her current assistant, too. The assistant recently became a manager and is utilizing the company's tuition reimbursement program to earn her bachelor's degree.
Far from frustrated by the disruption staff changes such as these can cause, Lyons says, "Giving employees at all levels opportunities to stay with the company and grow is a huge talent attraction and retention tool. When an organization recognizes the value of retaining loyal employees and developing those who are looking for new challenges, it is a big win for everyone."