The Harvard Business Review recently published an article by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman on why most employees in high potential leadership development programs aren’t actually high potential.

Companies Are Bad at Identifying High-Potential Employees

According to their research, as many as 40% of the people in HIPO leadership development programs inside organizations are actually below average when it comes to leadership effectiveness. Why?

According to Zenger and Folkman, most HIPO programs identify participants based on four criteria:

  1. Technical and professional expertise
  2. Taking initiative and delivering results
  3. Consistently honoring commitments
  4. Fitting into the culture of the organization

The crux of the issue is that subject matter expertise and the ability to be individually productive only take you so far. They are the bread and butter of early careers, and enable us to take on more responsibility and be rewarded accordingly. But their return on investment drops precipitously at a certain point. It’s the Peter Principle at work — the idea that people are promoted to their level of incompetence. How do you keep that from happening to you?

Expertise and productivity in and of themselves are not bad things. But they are insufficient for leading on increasingly complex playing fields and motivating people towards a common purpose. When the game changes, greater leverage comes from the ability to see and navigate ever larger and more complicated situations (read: being strategic), and to inspire many people (not just yourself) to work together to achieve the vision that is set out.

The vast majority of my coaching clients come to the table with some version of this issue at play in their careers, and I can pinpoint for myself exactly when and where I capitalized on and was held up by them as well.

The challenge is to grow your capacity to see and act from higher and higher platforms in the system within which you operate. That doesn’t mean you have to have the title and pay of CEO in order to do this. Far from it. What it does mean is that your potential will be “high” when you can take the perspective of multiple stakeholders, create a path through to the business results that are needed, and get a critical mass of people genuinely interested in going there with you.

Tackling these aspects of how you show up as a leader have a disproportionately positive impact on your leadership effectiveness, and therefore your leadership potential. If you’re lucky enough to be in a HIPO leadership development program, don’t be lulled into complacency just because you were selected (you could be a false positive!) Instead, make sure you’re making the most of the opportunity by focusing on developing the right things.