Shortly after joining Standard Oil of California at their New Jersey refining facility in Perth Amboy in 1973 I was introduced to a guy about my age named Simon. “Keep your eye on Simon”, I was told, “He is one of our high potentials.” That was fun. I had just completed a Masters at Michigan State and joined the company just to find out that some people there already had an advantage on me before we even took the field. It reminded me of showing up at spring tryouts for baseball at Michigan State the first day and noticing the several freshmen who already had been issued uniforms. That kind of shortened up the odds of making the team.
I went on to a limited career at SOCAL, staying just about eight years. During that time I was promoted three times and moved around the country twice, finally resigning to pursue a career in the newly developing field of organizational development. As the operator of my own firm for the next twenty + years I never had occasion to employ “Hi Pots” as I had learned to call them in my previous place of employment. My employees were simply Pots!
Over the years we hired people into various positions but never let their past experience dictate their future with the company. As a result of this tradition two of our employees who arrived with several years experience in office administration became interested in the consulting work, asked to be trained and eventually left to start their own practices. We were always amazed when people asked if they could try something new and at the same time pleased that they saw that the environment of our company invited people to explore new learning and ways to contribute. And giving them the opportunity proved very beneficial for the company.
I was uncomfortably reminded of my early professional experience when I read a recent piece by John Stepper titled Unlocking Potential in Your Organization. If you haven’t discovered John Stepper I’d recommend that you do and sooner rather than later. (This piece is worth the read if only to be introduced to Aimee Mullins and inspired by her life story.) John is an internal expert on developing the use of collaborative platforms and communities of practice at Deutsche Bank. I suspect he could work a lot of other places too but he seems to enjoy sectors that are utilizing technology to facilitate working smarter. He also has a keen understanding of people and accepts as I do that people come to work each day looking for an opportunity to contribute to the highest degree possible.
When it comes to this overvalued, over used and under defined term, High Potential, Stepper has this to say…
We’ve known for almost 50 years that the processes for arriving at these labels are riddled with biases. Worse, the labels related to potential are simply wrong and unnecessarily limiting, actively reducing the potential in the organization.
In looking back had I had a bit more savvy and political capital I might have challenged the company on the use of a term and evaluation process that really meant that
- You went to a school we respect, usually one many of us went to or wish we had.
- Your degree is either in engineering, (preferably chemical, we are a petroleum company after all) or an MBA with a concentration in finance.
- These factors taken together with your high academic performance have us think you can be groomed for senior management.
Within a couple of years after arriving at SOCAL it became clear to me that my path forward was going to be in the HR profession and the likelihood of me gaining experience in any other area, sales or marketing for instance was highly unlikely because I had been labeled as an HR guy. I had graduated with distinction from my Master’s program, but it was an undervalued area of knowledge at the time. And it was after all a state university. My world of challenge and advancement would be limited to the functional area into which I had been hired without regard to any other talents I might have or be interested in developing. The recognition of this fact of life, at least with that employer, had a lot to do with my choice to leave when I did.
Did I have potential for senior management at SOCAL? Honestly I would say no, not as much for lack of talent as lack of interest. As it turns out I have been both rewarded and gratified by my choice. However, I would also say that if the company had looked at me differently I might have stayed for at least a few more years and somewhere in there we may have discovered a mutual interest that made my staying at least as attractive as leaving for all parties concerned. Had I and the folks at my one and only professional employer had the benefit of the perspective offered in an earlier Stepper piece ‘A Better Way to Identify and Develop Talented People’ I might have written this post from the inside rather than the outside looking back wondering what might have been.
So what’s going on in your organization? Are you still painting people into career paths with labels that have really nothing to do with fullest potential?