The high-performing, high-risk, high-potential

Almost all organizations hope to spot their talents early, to develop their future leaders. Much is written about how to make high-potential development successful, as the return on investment of such programs is questionable.

But what about the risk of successfully developing high-potentials?

I’ve seen more failures than successes with high-potential development programs. Everyone is happy when they find that rare jewel: highly intelligent, extremely driven, excellent social skills, strong focus, highly adaptive to changes, charges into difficult situations head-on. The one that sees opportunities where others don’t, is not afraid to go out of her comfort zone where others safely stay within, excitedly takes on new challenges and acquires new skills along the way.

The one person that made me realize high-potentials can be high risk, was exactly like that. The organization happily provided him with challenging assignments and new opportunities, rotating him through jobs every one or two years. Very quick, but necessary when you’re grooming a CEO for a big multinational. You want them to move up ranks quickly enough to reach CEO level somewhere before they’re sixty.

This suited the high-potential as well. His desire to be challenged was met through assignments in different types of jobs, quick career moves through several management layers, working out of several locations.

After time, a tricky pattern emerged. Even if such a high-potential didn’t start out as adrenaline junkie, ten or fifteen years of quick career moves and constant new challenges effectively made him one. He needed challenges, bigger ones every time, with little time in between. He didn’t merely survive well under pressure, but needed stressful circumstances to be at his best. He actively was seeking exciting experiences.

For a long time, the organization could provide that through new career moves. But once the high-potential-turned-top-manager reached the highest ranks, the promotion speed inevitably slowed down. With only two or three steps to go to the top job, positions weren’t always available when he was ready for it. Besides, (boards of) organizations prefer people to stay for a few years in the more senior jobs to build substance.

By now, this person was wired to get a quick succession of adrenaline rushes through new challenges. After two years in a new role, he got bored and created challenges himself. For example by shaking up the organization by designing a reorganization for which there was no clear need. By seeking changes in his private life. By exploring several risky behaviors, in his quest for new challenges.

At this point, the revered high-potential became a liability. Top management is now faced with a dilemma: he can undoubtedly do the top job, but will he bring himself, and the company, down? Or will he be able to curb his adrenaline seeking behavior and bring the company to new heights?

It will be interesting to see what happens. I sincerely hope he makes it to the top job, as he’s probably the best, most intelligent and likeable leader I’ve witnessed up close. But I also fiercely hope he has at least one or two people around him who are aware of the risk, and will actively work with him to ensure he doesn’t venture onto unnecessary risky paths.

How to reduce the time spent on meetings

Meetings are a necessary part of everyone’s working life. Whether it’s with clients, suppliers, colleagues, bosses, unions, policy makers: we all need to have meetings to work together, come to decisions, or share information. In many organizations, meetings have become the main way for people to interact with each other.

Several studies show that people spend 30-50% of their time in meetings, and consider at least a quarter of them a waste of time. To address this waste, many books, tools, checklists, and trainings have been  conceived on how to conduct effective meetings. Often, they are about how to hold an effective meeting. Sometimes they also deal with the most important questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this meeting? Is the topic really important?
  2. Is a meeting the right way to address this topic, or can it be done by one or two people on their own?
  3. Who are the people that absolutely need to be involved? (and skip the rest)

Yes, I am stating the obvious. It is not revolutionary at all. Everybody knows this, and agrees with it. So why are the number and length of meetings not reduced? What is the underlying human behavior?

Several years ago, I was in a meeting where the management team discussed the color of the carpet of the new building. As I didn’t feel strongly about the topic, I removed myself from the heated debate. Looking around the boardroom, I wondered whether these men and women had imagined doing this when they were in their late teens, early twenties. Had they pictured themselves in a stale meeting room, passionately discussing the color of the new carpet?

I guess not.

At that time, would they have believed that in their forties they would spend more than half an hour deciding whether it should be a light or a dark shade of blue?

Again, probably not.

So, what happened to them along the way? What had changed, that twenty five years later, they were heatedly defending their take on the color of the carpet? Why was it so hard for them to realize, before or during the meeting, that this was not the most effective use of their time?

Because many people always have an opinion, together with the natural urge to share it. Especially in response to hearing someone else’s opinion. Take politicians, doctors, teachers and the like. A few decades ago, they were put on a pedestal, and very few people would question their professional decisions. Nowadays, we all feel we can question everyone, every time, everywhere.

In general that’s a good thing. We should not doggedly follow others, just because they are considered the expert. But we also don’t need to voice, or even have, an opinion on everything, always. Whether it’s about politics, other people’s lives, or the color of the carpet.

The good news: the reduction of the number and length of meetings lies in our direct power. Just by asking ourselves whether we can add value. We should realize that deciding on the shade of blue for the carpet is not adding value in any way. And then remove ourselves from that discussion, and be content with the outcome.

Next time when you’re having a meeting, really ask yourself the three questions above. Determine whether you and the other participants really can add value by having the meeting, or whether you’re just deciding on the color of the carpet.