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Searching for Potential – On the Basketball Court and in the Workplace

By Mike Hoban

Mike HobanDuring this latest season of March Madness (college basketball tournament) there were many professional talent scouts who are focusing on individuals rather than teams. They are trying to determine which college players have what it takes to be successful at a significantly higher level of play—the National Basketball Association (NBA). They are gauging the trajectory and potential of talent, and it’s an inexact science. 

But overall they do a better job than their counterpart “talent scouts” do in the business world.

Searching for Potential – On the Basketball Court and in the WorkplaceBasketball talent scouts use a lot of data to help guide their decisions. They study game films. They look at player statistics, especially against good competition. They try to identify intangibles like performance under pressure and peer leadership. And they have a good sense of what is required for success in the professional league. But there’s some alchemy involved and it still requires judgment, intuition, and a little bit of luck to predict success at the NBA level.

This evaluating of talent—especially leadership talent—does occur in the workplace, and sometimes with the rigor of professional sports scouts. But all too often these efforts are fraught with vague ideas and lack of agreement about what leadership “potential” is. At DDI, one of the ways we define high potential is “the likelihood that an individual is seen as able to advance to significantly broader/expanded leadership responsibilities with high business impact.” But that definition only sets the stage. What is needed is a language (definitions, criteria, and factors) that leaders—the organization’s talent scouts—can use with each other to discuss potential. This language should be supported by research, and it should pass the common-sense test by people who use it. 

I was observing a regional talent review two years ago being conducted by a global organization, and they were discussing leadership potential in order to populate a commonly-used, 9-box grid (one axis for performance and one for potential). They did not have standard factors for defining potential, and for many of them the exercise seemed like a demonstration of the aphorism about identifying good art. That is, it’s hard to define, but “I know when I see it.” During the meeting, I heard the following statements describing different managers: "Intelligent," "Team player," "Great personality," "Grounded," "Dependable," "Good attitude," "Excellent soft skills," "Good communicator," "Outside the box thinker." And there were almost no questions among the participants about what any of these expressions meant in behavioral terms.

Not only were the descriptors not behaviorally specific, they also have very little connection with “potential” or the trajectory toward being successful at much bigger jobs. I suppose being a “team player” is a good thing but how does that behavior predict someone’s ability to play on a much bigger stage? That kind of discussion would never cut it in the sports world where the success of the professional franchise is connected to talent scouts getting it right about a college player’s “potential.”

DDI has identified 10 research-based factors (in addition to sustained performance) which are related to leadership potential. Examples include: Brings out the best in people, Receptive to feedback, and Navigates ambiguity. And in a robust discussion of potential, evidence is brought into the picture so the conversation can avoid generalities based on reputation. Like in the sports world, identifying potential is an inexact science, but using a research-based process provides needed rigor to important decisions about the future leaders of the company.

Many organizations, of course, are successfully and accurately identifying potential. But overall, I think it is uniformly done better in the world of sports. In fact, I’d call it a slam dunk.

Mike Hoban is project consulting manager, Hong Kong & South China, DDI

Posted: 10 Apr, 2014,
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