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12 Tips (and Warnings) for High-Potential Leaders

Personal experience may be a great teacher, but the best leaders recognize that there is much to be learned from the perceptions and experiences of others. Listening to them can break you away from the echo chamber of your thoughts, help you anticipate traps and pitfalls that slow the journey, and, most importantly, identify patterns that bring success.


We recently interviewed four members of Marshall Goldsmith 100, some of the world’s top leadership experts, asking them to share their perspectives on significant opportunities and potential traps that high-potential leaders should be aware of as they advance in their careers—what they wish they had known when they started. These individuals have collectively coached high-potential leaders from the chaos of warzones to the sleek and orderly halls of Silicone Valley and NASA Mission Control. If you’re going to reflect on the experiences of others, these are four points of view worth reflecting on.

What would you want high-potentials to learn from your experience, work, or research?


Thomas A. Kolditz – Identify your Purpose

Identify your purpose as early as possible, align your life around it and work with it every day. I was close for about 20 years but didn’t connect strongly with a purpose until I was 48-years-old.


Within a few years my income tripled and my happiness went up 10 times. Neither of those outcomes was expected, but I quickly realized that when you are truly in alignment with purpose, a lot of very cool things happen.


If you sell-out happiness for monetary rewards, productivity, and accomplishment without any sense of purpose, you eventually wake up and realize your life has been misspent building widgets and adding zeros to your bank account. You are left trying to buy fulfillment. It can’t be done. You can buy amusement, or even some happiness, but you can’t buy fulfillment of your purpose.


Dorie Clark – Be Strategic about your Personal Brand

Being strategic about building your personal brand early in your career is one of the best investments you can make.


As I discuss in my book, Stand Out, doing good work is important, but is not enough in a noisy, crowded world. Ensuring that you cultivate a strong reputation enables you to attract high-quality mentors and sponsors who can help you advance; and it draws clients, promotions, and opportunities to you.


Liz Wiseman – Use the Learner’s Advantage & be a Multiplier

First, know that being inexperienced can be an asset. I studied over 400 scenarios, comparing how people with and without experience approach work. As we gain experience, we gain confidence, credibility and knowledge. But, once we know the patterns, we can stop seeing new possibilities. We stop asking why, and we just do. We have a reputation to defend, so we don’t allow ourselves to risk failure or embarrassment. Once we stop learning, we stop having fun, and we stop finding success.


On the other hand, when we are rookies, we ask why and have a “Learner’s Advantage.” We bring more expertise (my research showed five times more) because we reach out to true experts and ask for help. We don’t know that things are “impossible,” so we naively try. In the process of wondering, asking and discovering, we do our best thinking, often outperforming those with experience. Use this to your advantage and don’t be shy about taking on roles for which you may feel un-qualified.


Second, experience as an executive and management researcher has taught me that the best leaders don’t necessarily share a common set of traits; they share a similar orientation and mindset. They worry less about “being all they can be” and instead they work on bringing out the best in others. They use their own intelligence and capability in a way that incites capability in others. They become “Multipliers” to the intelligence and performance of others.


While most leaders aspire to be a “Multiplier,” many leaders become a “Diminisher” for their team, playing to their own strengths while the members of the team silently retreat to make room for their overbearing boss.


If a leader wants his or her team to perform to its potential, the leader needs to understand how best intentions can be translated and received differently than they were intended.

This level of self-awareness is the key to unlocking the talent in people around you and is essential for succeeding in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) environment, where there is simply too much for any one person to know. In this environment, the critical skill is not what you know but how fast you can learn and access what other people know.


Paul Hill – The “Touchy-feely” Stuff Is Critical

For most of my career, I was a triple type-A-don't-bother-me-with-your feelings-guy. This was the product of my natural tendencies coupled with the culture I was working in. Rocket launches and emergencies demand direct communication and immediate action. Things like personality type and communication style were openly regarded as "touchy-feely bullshit."


I thrived leading tough technical problem-solving and moved up the ranks to become a Flight Director in Mission Control. I then led some of the key engineering teams for the return-to-flight after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. As we solved a series of complex problems, we also contended with a series of disagreements for almost every solution. In the end, we were completely successful and demonstrated the results on the flight that paved the way to flying Shuttles again and completing space station construction.


When it was done, I was told to get my resume together; it was time for me to move on for leaving too many bodies in my wake (upsetting too many people). I viewed our successful mission as proof that I was right about those disagreements. I had achieved the impossible and was now getting fired over it? Didn’t the results outweigh the criticisms? I didn't yet realize that how you lead is at least as important as technical expertise over the long haul.


In an unlikely and fortunate turn of events, as I was preparing to leave NASA I was sent to an executive development program. During this program I took a personality type assessment, debriefed it with a coach, and learned that many of those disagreements were driven by interpersonal and communication style differences, not rocket science. If I could understand those differences, I could do something to keep them from creating conflict where we could find agreement. More help from an executive coach helped me make incremental but very deliberate changes in my behaviors that did just that.


Within six months, senior leaders were saying to my boss, "What have you done to Paul Hill? He is such a positive contributor in the senior management forums."


I had learned a profound appreciation for the “touchy-feely bullshit.” And not only had other leaders noticed, but the awareness I learned made me a significantly better leader.


Instead of leaving NASA, I was promoted into the executive ranks where I helped my team perform at higher levels none of us would have thought possible, and would not have been possible, without this awareness.


What are most/many high-potentials overlooking or doing wrong?


Thomas A. Kolditz – Failing to Make their Peers Look Good

Most high-potentials try to make their business unit or area of responsibility thrive, and they overlook developing, encouraging, and supporting their peers. I have always singled out for promotion the people who were brave and generous enough to make their peers look good. To do otherwise is to demonstrate a sense of inferiority, laced with a big scoop of selfishness.


In my experience, only about 10% of “high-potentials” have the strength/courage/integrity to put energy into others. Those are the people who are most valuable in organizations, and who we want to be top tier leaders in government, business, and the social sector.


Dorie Clark – Being Passive About their Reputation

Frequently in professional life, you’ll be in a situation (a cocktail party, a conference, a networking event) where someone asks you, “What are you working on?” or “What have you been up to lately?” We all know that question is coming, and yet very few take the time to prepare a good answer for it. We fumble around and try to come up with something on the spot, or – even worse – say, “Nothing much,” or “Same old thing.”


This is your moment when you can set the tenor for how the other person views you. You aren’t bragging, because they asked, and they have to listen, because they asked! So take the time to figure out in advance what you’re going to say and choose an answer that helps build your brand in the direction of how you’d like to be viewed.


If you would like to be seen as innovative, pick an innovation-focused initiative to talk about; if you’d like to be known for your management skills, talk about a team victory you’re proud of. That will go a long way toward establishing the reputation you want.


Liz Wiseman – Waiting

A frequent mistake I see high-potential talent make is simply waiting. Despite their drive and desire to make a difference, too many talented people are waiting for their managers to take charge or waiting to be noticed and invited to contribute at high levels. Don’t wait for an act of great leadership to inspire you or give you permission to contribute – you can take charge of your own contribution. Rather than waiting around for the leader you wish you had, you can be the leader that the other people around you need.


Paul Hill – Feeling special

Many high-potentials are too focused on being a high potential instead of becoming a high achiever. We become known as high potentials by impressing management. As we are more and more recognized as a high potential, it’s easy to fall for our own reputation or buy into our own propaganda, “Hey, I must be pretty good!” And that can then get in our way.


I was in a senior-level meeting where a first-year employee just out of school was presenting. She was poised and had excellent presentation and communication skills. Reactions around the room were, "Wow, we're all going to be working for her someday. She's going to be a flight director” (Mission Control’s most prestigious leadership position).


Human Resources pulled her into a special grooming program for exceptional employees who were all in their first year on the job! She spent half her time traveling to different NASA sites or learning strategy. But she wasn't learning the foundational things and wasn't contributing to the mission.


Because she was told how special she was, she focused on finding more opportunities to meet senior managers instead of learning from the peers and heroes all around her. In three years, she flamed out and was not able to be complete the training to work in Mission Control – the most important first step to a leadership role in that community.


Doing exceptional work is great. Being recognized for it is great. But as soon as feelings of "specialness" show up, it can hold you back in ways you may not realize at the time.


Mentally separate doing exceptional work from beingspecial.” No matter how much you accomplish, it’s your actions that continue to make a difference for the team.


What do you wish you knew earlier in your professional life?


Thomas A. Kolditz – Recognize my Value and Challenge my Assumptions about People

First, I wish I had recognized my own value earlier. I’m authentically humble, but that also made me see myself as no better or worse than anyone else. That was a mistake, because I was, in fact, better than most, and I sometimes sold myself short in job searches or interviews. I now spend a lot of time with mentees telling them how wonderful they are—especially women and minorities.


I would go out on a limb and say that the best high-potentials tend to sell themselves short, and they need to be coached out of that. On the flip side, high-potentials who have an inflated sense of capability and importance are just awful people to be around and dangerous to organizations. There is a balance to be struck to maintain a realistic self-image.


Second, this may be a little “dark side,” but I wish that, early on, I had a better appreciation for how deceitful, disingenuous, and unethical people could be, and still operate in an otherwise civil society. I’m sort of the original Boy Scout, I do my dead level best to keep promises, to maintain a sense of personal honor and integrity. I really believe in that.


Because of that, I’ve been naïve because I expect the same of others. I expect to be told the truth, I expect for people to honor my ideas and products without stealing them, I expect people not to stab me in the back for their advancement, or even for their pure pleasure. This has been especially true in overseas contexts, where the rules of ethics change rapidly, and not only truth, but life itself can go cheaply. Men have died because of my assumption that others were doing the right thing. That’s been tough to take.


Dorie Clark – Be Politically Cautious

Early in my career, I didn’t fully understand the boss-employee power dynamic. I treated my boss, whom I liked, more like a friend, and was a bit too frank about some of my opinions, and I think it hurt me.


There is a difference between authenticity – being true to yourself – and sharing too much. It’s important to always be authentic in the sense of not ‘trying to be someone else’ or pretending to be something you’re not. But it’s equally important when dealing with your boss or clients to be cautious until you understand the lay of the land politically. At that point, you can make an informed decision about what’s worth speaking up about, and in what way you’ll be most effective.


Liz Wiseman – Understand How Most Leaders Are Flying Blind

I wish that I had understood more deeply how most leaders are flying blind – not because information is not available, but rather because they can’t see what is actually in front of them. We tend to think of leaders as people sitting on top of the organization who have big vision and a bird-nest view of the ship and the horizon. However, in my personal experience and my work coaching executives I’ve noticed that people at the top of the organization have a hard time seeing clearly.


Once you are in a leadership position, hierarchy makes it difficult for people give you bad news and to correct you when you are wrong or operating with bad data. When you are in a position of power, it is easy to live in an echo chamber that reinforces misguided assumptions and bars uncomfortable truths. But, in a myriad of ways, a leader’s job is to work within this zone of discomfort (and bring their team along with them).


It has taken many mistakes and years of observation to understand that it takes intentional work for leaders to escape their distorted view of reality and for them to see things as they truly are, especially to understand the difference between their intent and their actual impact on others. Executive vision isn’t just about how far into the future you can see – it is about how clearly you see the world around you.


Paul Hill – Realize that Success Doesn’t Necessarily Mean You Were Right

NASA has had three accidents where astronauts died in spacecraft. In each case, the primary cause was not an engineering or technical mistake. These accidents – in three successive generations – were caused when leaders began accepting risks with less and less technical rigor. After each poorly-thought-out decision, if nothing bad happened, we concluded we must have been right. Over time, each generation’s leaders began trusting their intuition instead of the sound decision-making and risk management they had learned and demonstrated when leading earlier successes. And in each generation, our luck ran out as the unmanaged risks stacked up out of our control.


It’s natural to view your success as proof that you were right. Maybe you were. As NASA has now discovered three times, though, it’s also easy to lose the distinction between being lucky and being good (and being right) until it’s too late.


Never accept, “This is how we’ve always done it, or I’ve always been right before.”

Instead, as you build success, keep asking why. Why is this a good decision? What are we guessing at? Who disagrees, and why? Make it a normal practice for your team to ask those questions and challenge the answers.

Tom Kolditz, Ph.D.Director of the Doerr Institute for New Leaders at Rice University, and formerly Professor and Director of the Leadership Development Program at the Yale School of Management. He is a retired Brigadier General and author of In Extremis Leadership, which is based on more than 175 interviews taken on the ground in Iraq during combat operations.

Dorie Clark Marketing strategy consultant, professional speaker, & author of Entrepreneurial You. Clients include Google, the World Bank, the Ford Foundation and Yale. Dorie Teaches at the Duke Fuqua School of Business.

Liz Wiseman – Author of the best-selling books: Rookie Smarts and Multipliers. Liz is a world leading researcher on the impact of leadership in organizations and teaches leadership to executives and emerging leaders around the world.

Paul Sean Hill – Leadership evangelist and author of Leadership from the Mission Control Room to the Boardroom. Former Director of Mission Operations NASA. Presidential Rank Award of Meritorious Executive, two NASA Outstanding Leadership Medals, NASA Distinguished Service Medal.

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