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The 3 Unintuitive Challenges Facing High Potentials



Weather as a startup founder or rising through the company ranks, High Potentials (HPs) face three unique challenges. These three challenges are not intuitive in real time. They become clear only in hindsight, which of course is too late.

1. Selling Up


HPs identify problems, solutions, and opportunities that can help their organizations. But insights into what needs to be done, data to support your argument, and even the willingness to lead the charge aren’t usually enough to get buy-in.


You also must be able to sell your idea up the chain.


Don’t toss your logical argument out the window, but before presenting any solutions, consider carefully the decision-maker you are approaching.

  • What are her values, problems, and goals, and fears?

  • What is incentivized or punished by her stakeholders? Performance or mistake minimization?

  • What time and day are you most likely to get a positive response? When is their energy and focus are highest?

  • Better to schedule an appointment or stop in?

  • Is a memo or conversation better?

  • Who can you ask that has more experience selling to this person or in this organization?

  • The bigger the mental shift required for them to buy in, the more time it will take for them to get there. Plant some seeds ahead of time and don’t expect them to change their mind in real time.

If you have interest and skill in improving the organization, advancing the mission, identifying and opportunities, you will either become very good at selling … or very frustrated. Of the two, I’d choose to be good at selling.


Without the selling skill, your other valuable skills will create much less impact than you were capable of making.


2. Avoiding Enemies, Building Social Capital, & Demonstrating Humility


HPs often attain leadership positions or high levels of responsibility quickly and this runs the risk of alienating peers or older employees who have not progressed at the same pace.


The problem is that most HPs are secure and don’t feel threatened by the accomplishments of others. As such, they don’t consider this risk with regard to the people around them. The truth is that most people are insecure and are easily threatened by the success of others around them.


If you don’t proactively address social capital while achieving accelerated success, you will experience problems.


You may think that being kind and considerate is sufficient to avoid the resentment of certain colleagues. And for most of your colleagues that is probably true. But it is very easy for your ambition to take on more responsibility and add more value to be perceived as arrogance, competition, or simply being “too pleased with yourself.”


This only becomes evident in hindsight, when you’re surprised to see that someone you’ve helped many times is working against your interest. This takes many forms: withholding key information, starting rumors, putting a negative spin on your accomplishments, or a failure to cooperate.


It’s surprisingly easy to cause reputational harm to people. One enemy is too many.

Detractors aside, if the people around you are hesitant to fully support you, you’ll be less effective.


It’s not enough to be kind. Do these things too:

  • Show Appreciation: Go out of your way to show clear signs of appreciation, whether that is buying someone lunch or bringing breakfast to the office. Set a reminder so you don’t forget about this when your schedule gets crazy. The costs are completely negligible compared to the benefits of strengthened relationships and problems avoided.

  • Ask for Advice: Show that you value and respect them by asking their advice on something once in a while. Use the word “advice.”

  • Thank Them: Thank people at every opportunity

  • Choose Your Words: Avoig “no,” and “but.” These words push people away.

  • Have More Contact: HPs are often so mission-focused they bury themselves in work and forget how valuable the relationships around them are. Make it a point to have more frequent, brief contact with colleagues. An extra 3 minutes a day spent in this way, costs virtually nothing and creates many benefits.

  • Take the Blame: Take the blame for mistakes and call out your own mistakes. The more you were the leader, the greater the need to do this. People are smart enough to know that taking responsibility is both hard and valuable to the organization.

  • Give Away the Credit: Most importantly, share credit for successes or give it away entirely. The more you were the head of the successful project, the greater the need to give away praise. People are smart, they’ll know you did a good job. The emotional need to make this more obvious makes you look less mature and less of a leader. Always be searching for ways to give others credit.

Lift others up at every opportunity. Your Return On Investment will be off the charts due to value created and problems avoided.


3. Deliberate Evolution … Even When it Seems Unnecessary


HPs are already successful. But the skills that got them to this level won’t get them to the next level. The higher you go, the more this is true.


Most people are not proactive about their improvement because it feels unnatural to question and change things that have worked for you so far. It’s completely unintuitive, to change what you’ve been rewarded for.


So why do it?


Three reasons:


First, each new level requires a rebalancing of skills and focus. As an employee, you were successful by doing a lot of work quickly and well. As a leader, you shift from doing the work to editing the work, articulating the vision, developing people, getting things out of their way. Higher levels of leadership each require additional changes.


Second, because HPs rise faster and seek to grow their impact faster, they also need to evolve faster. This means, being proactive and not waiting to learn from mistakes or relying on others to manage your professional development. Learning from your own mistakes is essential, but if that is your primary strategy, you’ll be far surpassed by those that learn from the mistakes of coaches and mentors, the most effective of whom will have leveraged the experience of many other people to shape their path.


Third, there is always more room to improve yourself and your results than is apparent to you. If you knew exactly what changes to make, you’d already have made them.


So, deliberate evolution is important. But how do you do it?


There are two main ways to deliberately evolve: Finding the right coach, mentor, or partner and systematic experimentation.


Reporting by the National Science Foundation suggests that 95% of our daily thoughts are the exact same thoughts we had the day before. We get into ruts without realizing it. To evolve rapidly, we need new questions, perspectives, ideas, and people. Rapid evolution beyond what seems possible on your own requires outside perspective. The right person or can help you more than you realize.


The top performers are never complacent. They keep experimenting. This is nothing more than doing things differently and paying attention to the results. The willingness to conduct small, fast experiments creates a competitive advantage over time.



Which of these challenges have you run into; selling up, building social capital, and being proactive about your evolution? Have you observed consequences to not doing these well or do you have tips to do them better?

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© 2017 by MG High Potentials