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High Potential…For What?

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

In a fierce knowledge-tech economy, one size fits all approaches to identifying and developing talent potential just don't work.

A while back I ran across an article in The New Yorker that featured an interview with Indra Nooyi, then CEO of Pepsico. The article, titled Snacks for a Fat Planet, described Nooyi’s balancing act relative to diversifying into new, healthier snack products while responding to growing concerns about the less-than-healthy reputation of the company’s core products, like soda and chips.

With chips, one big culprit is sodium. Pepsico’s researchers took on the challenge to create a lower-sodium chip that tasted just as salty as a regular chip. To be successful, the team needed to combine their expertise as food scientists with creative problem solving. Through experimenting and peer collaboration, the team developed a new 15 micron salt that produces the same ‘taste curve’ with 25-40% less sodium than what the company had been using. Pretty cool as innovations go.

The article got me thinking – would those food scientists and expert professionals like them be considered to have high potential? Would they be targeted for outsized investment in ongoing development, not just to hone their expertise but to help make them great team and functional leaders? While the answer to this question might very well be ‘yes’ at Pepsico, in my years working with clients and researching the topic of high potentials, the more typical answer is, probably not.

Ask most talent development professionals: what does high potential mean? and they’re likely to describe someone with potential to take on an increasingly broad scope of leadership duties. Not surprising since that’s where the bulk of investment and research focus has been in recent years. But in today’s knowledge and technology economy, we need to broaden our perspective about what it means to have potential. The reality is, to achieve strategic competitiveness, organizations will increasingly rely on deep levels of expertise in their talent, not just good management and leadership skills.

Benchmark companies like General Electric are starting to figure this out. GE is shifting from developing “jack of all trade” generalists to valuing subject-area expertise more. Said one GE executive about the trend: “The world is so complex, we need people who are pretty deep.”

With this growing emphasis on the importance of expertise-driven talent, it’s important to understand what characterizes and motivates them. My colleague Dr. Guangrong Dai and I recently concluded a multi-phase research initiative on the topic. Here’s some of what we learned about high-performing experts:

  • They strongly identify with their profession (e.g.“I am an engineer”).

  • They want to be recognized, trusted, and respected for their expertise.

  • They find “administrivia” and office politics especially frustrating

  • They crave autonomy and freedom to make decisions.

  • Most have and desire a linear career path. But contrary to some prevalent assumptions out there, many are motivated to be leaders (it’s the general manager track that holds little appeal since that would remove them from their expertise domain).

So how do high-performing experts compare to those typically considered high potential? It turns out there are many similarities between the two:

  • Both want to be challenged.

  • Both are thrilled to solve complex problems.

  • Both have a strong desire for achievement.

  • Both recognize that continuous learning contributes to career success.

  • Both stress the importance of self-awareness.

Finding and developing future business leaders is and should be a critical priority for organizations. But investing in just those employees with the potential to succeed in broad leadership roles can be risky. Remember: while Indra Nooyi has set the strategic agenda to develop healthier snacks, it’s the Pepsico food scientists who are bringing innovation to life. Much like the bumper sticker “Start Seeing Motorcycles”, we need to start seeing high-performing experts’ impact on organizational success and use a more expansive approach to high potential management and development to tap into the potential of all high performers.

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