Aditi Sharma Kalra's take on how to reap the benefits of a multi-talented team that features both high-performers and high-potentials.

You’ve been staffed on a high-impact, high-risk project that needs to be delivered “yesterday”: would you rather pick a high-performer or a high-potential to join you on this mission? Perhaps on another occasion, you wouldn’t have to make the difficult choice at all – as one candidate is more proactive than the other, thus putting up their hand after analysing the big-picture perspective.

Don’t worry, this is not a particularly puzzling episode of Would You Rather?, but instead a humble take on solving the age-old conundrum of potential versus performance, and how to reap the benefits of a multi-talented team that features both high-performers and high-potentials.

It’s easy to confuse the two though, and not just for relatively new managers. The reason being is that not many organisations clearly define the attributes and competencies valued in their ideal employees.

“That means managers don’t know precisely what to look for to assess potential. As a result, they focus exclusively on performance, that is, KPIs, project achievement, and event-based evaluation, which can be a problem,” explains Haileena binti Husin, Senior Manager – Talent Acquisition & Management, Composites Technology Research Malaysia. “High performance is so extremely easy to observe that it drowns out the less obvious attributes and behaviours that characterise high potentials – like managing change or learning capabilities.”

Put another way, high-performers undergo a more objective assessment, while the assessment for high-potentials tends to be more subjective, says Sally Tang, Regional HR Director, Asia Pacific, Soletanche Bachy. She also finds that typically, high-performers are “good at a particular task, expert in their own field, so more of an IQ person”, while for high-potentials, their ability to adapt to changes typically means they have a good mix of EQ as well as IQ – thus making them more employable.

This trait of high-performers being exceptionally good at their given task does spill over into their career path in a way. Haileena explains: “High-performers stand out from average performers and consistently exceed expectations. They are great at their job, but may not have the potential (or the desire) to succeed in a higher-level role or to tackle more advanced work.”

Mausami Arora, Singapore Head of HR, British American Tobacco Singapore, agrees: “High potential reflects the capabilities required for the next level, while high performance reflects the capacity to deliver outstanding results with significant stretch at the current level.

“A common misconception is an assumption that your high performer by default carries the aspiration to move to the next level. With all good intention, you push them to uncomfortable territory for development, only to realise the disengagement and sub optimal results later.”

I agree on the ability of high-performers to lead the toughest of projects, yet, get the job done fabulously and well on time; while high-potentials bring skills that focus more on collaboration, empathy and the bigger picture.

I’m sure this scenario is familiar to many of us managing teams, and it is evident how important the contribution of each demographic is to the end result, given each one’s strengths at the table. In that case, the next question is how we can engage and reward both types of talent better.

One surefire way to lose our top talent, and this is derived from feedback sessions in Haileena’s organisation, is to lack clear direction or transparency on the employee’s career path.

Mausami attests to this: “An inability to stay in sync with top talent’s needs is a surefire mistake to lose them. What goes a long way in building connect is the line manager’s investment in regular conversations on performance with an emphasis on their development and career-next steps.”

Jaya Mittal, HR Director, Sealand – Asia Pacific, and Maersk – Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, weighs in with her experience on her number one strategy for top talent. “The best strategy for developing and rewarding high-potentials is to give them larger and stretch assignments early on and create a rotation whereby they get the high-impact experiences that help them take on larger and bigger responsibilities to create an impact,” she says.

“Of course, we do need to match it with the necessary compensation. However, more important, is the role and growth they can look forward to.”

Similarly, for high-performers, she explains: “High-performers also need to experience meaning, engagement and challenge in their assignments. They need respect and recognition for the expertise they bring. Rewards and bonuses, especially the short-term bonuses, are important to recognise their contribution to the organisation.”

However, she adds they also need to experience rotations and take different and challenging tasks to keep them engaged – albeit with a caveat, in their case there may be more lateral movements rather than vertical ones.

Concurring with the HR leaders, I agree on the ability of high-performers to lead the toughest of projects, yet, get the job done fabulously and well on time; while high-potentials bring skills that focus more on collaboration, empathy and the bigger picture.

Both bring to the table qualities that a winning team absolutely cannot do without! So if you’ve got a perfect blend on your team, don’t let them go, and in fact, give them every opportunity to reach the peak of their personal and professional development.


This interview has been published exclusively in the Mar-Apr 2020 issue of Human Resources. Read this edition of Human Resources, Singapore:

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