The Unprotected Quarterback

Oct 30, 2008

High performers are assumed to be a priority focus for retention efforts during any form of economic crisis.

The value they put on the table should ensure that they have an edge in keeping their jobs, but in actual practice things don’t work quite so well.

The Chosen Ones

The methods that are used to evaluate whether someone has high potential are many and varied, but they generally focus on two issues: capabilities and desire.

High potentials are people who have shown that they have what it takes to succeed. Often they do this by succeeding, but many are assessed at an early stage in their career, and this is done using a combination of their manager’s evaluation, a psychometric test, and some form of assessment center process.

Combined with this high level of capability, The Chosen Ones also have a desire to move up through the ranks in their company. This is seen from the general high pace with which they approach every job or task assigned to them, and also a stated preference on their part for a high level of career growth.

The advantages of being a high potential is usually assumed to outweigh the risks, and few would ever think about these risks. But being chosen is not necessarily the boon that many people assume it will be. It does not constitute any serious level of protection against being laid off.

The Real World

For a start, high potentials have to suffer a degree of resentment from other company employees. Their decisions are not always perfect (whose decisions are?) so it’s a bit like being set up for a fall. If they make a mistake, or just do not excel sufficiently, the reaction will often be: “See, I told you. What’s so special about this guy?’

Average performers can operate without this level of scrutiny. If they succeed they will be noticed. They have the advantage of the opposite reaction: “Who’d have thought that John could have … Wow!”

Most business nowadays is a matter of teamwork and cooperation, so a high potential’s efforts can easily be thwarted if any number of colleagues publicly support their initiatives, but privately hinder them. If the organization is sufficiently hierarchical that high-potentials develop a degree of entitlement, this can really be a serious problem.

The other concern that people have with the high-potentials is also a teamwork issue. Often, people who succeed in one team are promoted to another as a reward and, surprise! surprise!, they fail at the new job. This is the promote-the-best-Salesman-to-be-the-Sales-Manager-scenario. Sometimes it works, but more often than not it fails.

So high-potentials already have a higher level of risk built into their career because they are promoted often, and to different departments. Every time they are given a new challenge they face this risk.

High-potentials also tend to be rotated around different departments in the early part of their career, and if the economy turns sour while they are still in this process, they can lose out badly. When the decision is made to fire, HR staffers and senior managers are going to have to choose between specialized, experienced average players, and high-potentials with a broad range of shallower experiences across business lines.

In addition, the high-potentials tend to be on bigger salary packages. In an economic downturn, terminating three or four very well-paid people affects the bottom line a lot more than terminating three of four average players. When you add in the fact that the average players have probably worked for their division for many years, and have built a strong network of connections, then the choice is not always much of a choice.

Finally, high-potentials have a stated preference for fast career growth. In any downturn, such as the one we are experiencing now, companies are simply not going to be able to deliver on this career growth.

HR and line managers are faced with the prospect of disappointing a person with high expectations, and this is not a choice most people want to make. High potentials are seen by other staff as being a bit ‘high maintenance.’ Why go through the difficulty of trying to satisfy their impossible demands when you have many average players who will be more than happy to fill the less-than-stellar roles that will emerge during the downturn?

Expecting the Unexpected

So if you have been chosen, and you staring out the window of your well-furnished corner office, pondering the “challenging situation” of the poor souls in your company who will soon be printing resumes, think again.

Remember the old joke. If you are in a room full of people who are talking about ‘The Patsy,’ and you don’t know who ‘The Patsy’ is, guess who ‘The Patsy’ is?

HR and senior managers may not be as enthusiastically in your corner as you think. Watch your back.

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