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The High-Potential Leader

By Ram Charan with Geri Willigan

Wiley, 227 pages, $36.00

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Top companies have been paying attention to high-potential employees for a couple of decades, with programs to advance them swiftly in their careers. Usually the high potentials are schooled to follow the model of the leaders at the summit of the corporate hierarchy. But Ram Charan, a peripatetic counsellor to those chieftains around the world, says future generations of high potentials must be trained to be unlike those leaders.

"Amid everything that is new and different, today's high-potential leaders, or 'hipos,' must be able to identify the unique untapped opportunities their companies will pursue and mobilize. This is a weakness in many older business leaders today," he writes in The High-Potential Leader , outlining three characteristics they will need that previous generations didn't necessarily require:

  • They imagine on a larger scale: They can pick up clues of what might be possible from the tons of information they gobble up and can use technology, algorithms and other people’s skills to make it happen. They are psychologically prepared to move very quickly and fearlessly.
     
  • They seek what they need to make it happen: High potentials will seek out anyone to get the help they need, not staying just with the hierarchy or their own organization. Steve Jobs displayed that characteristic when he called Bill Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, for technical help. That was a rare act then; today, it must be more commonplace.
     
  • They understand the concept of the ecosystem: Companies rarely act alone in delivering a product or service. Think of Wal-Mart and Amazon, with their huge array of suppliers. “Hipos have the ability to see the total picture, to conjure a mental image of the web of interrelationships, and to think imaginatively of how to redesign it,” he says.

High potentials are usually swamped, so they must cultivate the ability to raise the return on their time, leveraging their "multipliers" – the things that allow them to accomplish more. The highest leverage comes not from process, organization or money, but from people. You must hire, develop and promote the best people, something Mr. Charan says doesn't consistently happen. Be tenacious, not giving up too quickly on the search for an exceptional candidate and settling for someone who can't give you the boost you need.

He offers this formula to multiply the energy and skills of those around you: People quality + job fit + collaboration = team performance. "People create strategy. People deliver the numbers. That means if you fall short on the people side, you fall short on the business leadership, period. You have to invest considerable time to know and grow people and to integrate their work. You also have to face up to tough decisions about people, including removing those who drain energy from others," he writes.

He suggests considering yourself as a talent scout, identifying a person's God-given talent. Push beyond first impressions, which will lead you to make decisions on obvious personality traits such as aggressiveness, confidence and energy level. Somebody who seems impatient and negative might, for example, be rightfully frustrated because peers won't come along the best path. Get to know the individual in a variety of situations. Once you discern the individual's strengths, build upon those.

An important element of today's ecosystem of partners joined together in a common platform is that it could include competitors. In the past, the key was to control the value chain from suppliers to consumers. Today, it's a different approach. "If you're in a small company being pulled into a big ecosystem, don't think of it as losing control. It may help you to become bigger," he stresses.

Follow four principles as you develop a strategy for high potentials. First, they are a resource for the company, not for an individual boss to protect. Second, their development paths must be customized to their needs. Third, the high potentials should be active participants in their development. Finally, you must accelerate their growth as fast as possible.

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The book, written with his long-time collaborator Geri Willigan, contains few surprises but covers a lot of terrain in his usual sage manner. It can serve as a modern management manual for use by individuals or organizations.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an onlinecolumn, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter.

‘Whenever there is a group that is under-represented and not performing as a dominant or a majority group, then this could be relevant for them’ Special to Globe and Mail Update

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