The New Potential: Should You Look for Shy-pos?

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Oct 16, 2019

A new conversation is happening in talent reviews globally that is confusing leaders and their HR partners alike. That conversation references what we call hidden ghems. A hidden gem is an individual who isn’t identified by the organization as a high-potential leader but supposedly has high potential to advance. 

If you’re recruiting for top talent, you will want to know how likely it is that they exist, where they might be hiding, and whether there is value in looking for them. When we consider a typical talent-review process, hidden gems might be found in a few areas: 

High performers who were not identified as high potential: For individuals who were discussed in the talent review process but not selected as high potential, they could be hidden gems in one of two categories:

  • Just missed the bar: The organization assessed the individual against the company’s potential criteria and decided that he or she came close to, but didn’t meet, the standard. There will always be someone who just misses the cut to be high potential. That doesn’t mean that those who narrowly miss being selected are hidden gems, but the imprecise nature of potential selection means that it’s possible. If this “just missed the bar” individual is a true gem, they should shine through in the next talent-review discussion. 
  • Unconventional potential: This high performer has capabilities or skills that don’t match your organization’s definition of potential. However, if given a chance, they could deliver strong results at a higher level in the organization. For this gem to be found, their manager will need to convince his or her peers that their candidate’s unconventional capabilities predict potential just as accurately as the organization’s carefully constructed high-potential model. The danger in this situation is that every unconventional high potential creates a new definition of high potential. 

A Rarer Gem

There’s much larger hunting ground for hidden gems in the 75 parent of a company’s leaders who weren’t considered for high-potential status because they weren’t sustained high performers. If gems exist in this group, it will be because they are:

  • Actively hidden by their manager: A manager wants to retain an individual and thus actively “down-talks” the employee in talent-review conversations to prevent the gem from being promoted or moved. This scenario is only possible in environments where other leaders wouldn’t have meaningful exposure to the individual — a smaller or a remote location.
  • Misidentified performers: In this case, an individual objectively performs at a high level, but the organization has overlooked their achievement during formal or informal performance evaluations. It’s possible that true high performance might be missed for one year if the employee has a particularly poor manager or unique factors exist that caused the individual’s high performance to not be reflected in their results. It’s unlikely that brilliant performance can be hidden for too long, so a true gem would be found within the next performance cycle.

The Well-Hidden Gems

There has always been the possibility of finding hidden gems in the places described above. The new dialogue that we hear in companies creates two additional categories of hidden gems. These categories don’t reflect any fundamental failing of the high-potential identification process or a failure to recognize obvious high potential. 

However, we increasingly hear the argument in companies worldwide that these two categories must be considered when evaluating potential. This mean that you should consider their existence when hunting for talent. The new categories are:

  • Repressed performers: This individual could have been a higher performer or demonstrated more potential, but they’ve been badly managed over time so their latent skills haven’t emerged. The debate about repressed performers focuses on what obligation the organization has to provide average or below-average performers an opportunity to grow and develop under better leadership. Even if they are given a new leader, they still would still face a high hurdle to prove that they are a high performer and high potential — one of the top 5-10 percent in their organization. Your conversation can help to determine if they’re a Hi-po disguised as a Shy-po and whether you’ve just dug up a hidden gem.
  • Shy-po: The question of whether Shy-po’s exist goes to a key criterion in many organizations’ potential model — an individual’s ambition to move upward. The desire to move up and make the sacrifices necessary to succeed at higher levels has long been considered an essential element of being a high potential. If someone either doesn’t raise their hand to volunteer for these challenges or specifically says they don’t desire them, can we consider them to be high potential?

Advocates for repressed performers and Shy-po’s suggest that it’s an organization’s responsibility to identify these hidden gems and bring them to their full potential. Are organizations morally and/or financially responsible to look for potential where it doesn’t obviously exist? An answer can be informed by considering the trade-offs of each choice.

Is the Search for Hidden Gems Worth It?

If hidden gems exist, they exist in addition to the more obvious gems found in a company’s high-potential identification process. There will be additional costs and lower odds of success if you chose to search for them. These risks and costs include:

  • A customized, not standardized, identification process: The talent review process is a standardized selection process and that consistency reduces variation and fights bias. Hidden ghems are searched for outside this framework which may mean you’ll find a kind of hi-po rather than a true hi0-po.
  • The free market (largely) works: If a hidden gem is truly as high performing and high potential as their less-hidden peer, that fact will be difficult to hide. Another leader will notice and publicize their work or provide them the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities in another part of the organization. Who else do you know in the organization who can identify these gems for you? 
  • The cost of not finding hidden gems is low: The number of high-potential leaders who might be hidden gems is far lower than the number of obvious high potentials. Keep in mind that all of your leaders went through an evaluation process to select those with potential. Hidden gems are the few who may have been missed. 

The Opportunity for a Hidden Gem

The outsized contribution of high-potential leaders makes identifying them a smart investment for any organization. But, since no process is 100 percent efficient, some true high-potentials will be missed in the selection process. Your opportunity as a recruiter is to identify the hidden gems that a company has left buried just below the surface.


(Also see my latest book — 8 STEPS TO HIGH PERFORRMANCE: Focus on What You Can Change (Ignore the Rest) )