Five X Factors: how to become – and stay – a high potential

2 minute read

Five critical skills differentiate high potentials from everyone else. Only 10-15% of an organisation’s talent is in this pool, so you need to be proficient in them all if you are to become an influential icon in your organisation

Sian Harrington

Five X factors of high potentials

What is a high potential and how do you become one? More importantly, once you are there, how do you remain a high potential? These are the questions answered by Jay Conger, professor at Claremont McKenna College, and Alan Church, senior VP of global talent assessment and development at PepsiCo, in their book, The High Potential’s Advantage: Get Noticed, Impress Your Bosses, and Become a Top Leader.

Based on existing academic literature, insights from best-in-class organisations and interviews with more than 100 leaders and senior HR officers who oversee high-potential talent in their organisations, Conger and Church have identified five X Factors that differentiate what one organisation defines as: “A highly valuable contributor with a great deal of stretch capability within the organisation. Such individuals are typically promoted to higher levels beyond their current role, and a select few can be seen as leading the organisation at the senior levels.”

You have to be good at all five skills. But at different points in your career, some are more important than others. So, here are those five X factors:

1. Situation sensing
This is the capacity to sense rapidly your boss’s unique stylistic demands and priorities. With sensing capacity, you can adapt thoughtfully to what matters most to superiors. The person most likely to assess your potential is your boss. Mess up that relationship and you’ll totally miss a shot at the high potential designation

2. Talent accelerating
This factor is a constellation of skills related to accessing, motivating and guiding the many teams you’ll lead over your career. After your first job as an individual contributor, you’ll move into team leadership roles and eventually be leading teams of teams. So, you need to be a quick study of talent and masterful at developing talent. High potentials succeed because they are able to draw deeply on the strengths and drives of the individuals they lead. In essence, your talent is built upon the talent of your team

3. Career piloting
As you move up and across your organisation, you’ll have more challenging assignments to develop and test your potential. Each will require remarkable versatility in terms of adapting your behaviour and mindset. You’ll have new and complex bodies of knowledge to acquire and master. The breadth of your leadership skills will be honed and tested simultaneously. You’ll discover the critical importance of being highly perceptive along with being comfortable with ambiguity and the necessity of a calm, perceptive and relational demeanour

4. Complexity translating
When you start out on your career, you’ll be rewarded for your ability to gather lots of data and deeply understand an issue. As you move you, your ability to integrate and simplify these same divergent sources of information is more important. From there, you’ll have to craft a compelling narrative, that is translate complexity, for different audiences

5. Catalytic learning
This foundational factor drives all others. It allows you to accomplish all the other factors. Long-term high potentials are able to learn and keep learning even after establishing remarkable track records. They are deeply and broadly curious. These qualities ensure they become and stay world-class situation sensors, talent accelerators, career pilots and complexity translator. Most importantly, they always turn their learning into insights, initiatives and actions – all aimed at improving or transforming the status quo. They are never passive. That’s the catalytic part

For more insight into each of these and to find out how to develop them, The High Potential’s Advantage will be published by Harvard Business Review Press on 9 January 2018. To pre-order your copy click here


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