The Dangerous Rise of the Rogue HiPo

On November 23, 2016, in Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, HRExaminer, Leadership, Rebecca Callahan, by Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

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This article is co-authored by Rebecca Callahan and Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of Hogan Assessments.

Tim and Sarah work for a large multinational telecoms company. They come from the same B-school and accepted offers in similar roles, and HR picked them both for an accelerated career program based on their laudable academic and early-career performance.

Tim is smart, charismatic, engaging, well-connected, and always on the pulse of the right issues – internally, he’s widely regarded as a rising star. Executives love him because he’s impressive but not too threatening, ambitious but willing to wait his turn. Business leaders see him as both a high potential (HiPo) and a high performer, and due to a fairly weak and monochromatic leadership pipeline, Tim rapidly leaps up the hierarchy. Within the organization’s political landscape, he does not have to achieve real results in his first new roles: his stellar reputation is widely celebrated, and is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Astutely, Tim stays just long enough in each role to take credit for someone else’s work, charm his new bosses, and get tapped for the next role. He finally lands a coveted role within sneezing distance of the C-Suite. This is the kind of job where the board notices you, and there’s no written roadmap to success. Expectations are high.

photo of Rebecca Callahan on HRExaminer.com

Rebecca Callahan, guest author on HRExaminer.com.

And he fails. Big. Senior leaders are embarrassed.  The company loses a lot of money. Replacing him is time-consuming and expensive – no one seems ready internally, and an external hire will need months to clean up the mess. Perhaps even worse, those who believed in Tim find it hard to accept the facts, so they prefer to be in denial about his performance or blame someone else.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s career path in the same firm looks rather different. She performs well in individual contributor roles, but in her first (hard fought) promotion to management, it becomes clear that she is not good at navigating the political scene. She spends most of her time talking to her subordinates, solving problems, tracking performance, looking at data, and supporting her team.  Her encounters with upper-level management range from non-existent to underwhelming. She is not really interested in networking (she sees it as not working) and assumes she’ll hear from the brass if she does something wrong.

photo of Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic

Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, HR Examiner Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

After several years with the telecom and a path of moderate advancement, Sarah becomes intimately familiar with some strategic and operational faults preventing the company from being more successful. In an attempt to make improvements that seem obvious to her, she offends a few senior leaders at an offsite planning meeting and gets a reputation for being prickly and disruptive. She is denied a few opportunities for promotions for which she is clearly qualified – or overqualified – and finally decides to leave. A rival telecoms firm hires her and benefits from her expertise, sense of ownership over problems, capacity for innovation, and knowledge of her former employer’s greatest weaknesses.

So what went wrong? Tim emerged as the obvious HiPo, yet never had a serious track record of proven results. Sarah was highly effective, and had real potential, but flew under the radar of leadership and even managed to antagonize them. As a result, the company lost money in the short term and precious talent capital in the long term.

Why is it so challenging for organizations to manage their HiPos well? In our view, the key problem has to do with the common gap between leadership emergence and effectiveness. Specifically, a large proportion of employees with the ability to emerge as HiPos are not equipped to be effective in leadership roles when they get there. And an equally large proportion of those who could be effective don’t have what it takes to emerge, not least because the common criteria for judging potential are wrong.

Tim is a typical emergent leader and could be found in any organization, but Sarah, in contrast, has the classic profile of an effective leader, including her inability to emerge. Effective leaders have the ability to build and maintain a high-performing team, but leaders who do this well often fail to stand out for a very simple reason: their time is not spent on self-promotion.  A seminal year-long study comparing the work activities of successful managers (those receiving frequent promotions and compensation increases) to effective managers (those with committed subordinates and high performing business units), tracked how they invested their time. The emergent group, the Tims of the world, spent their time managing up by networking and politicking, but the effective group, the Sarahs, spent their time managing down by guiding employees and driving team performance. The two groups only overlapped by 10%.

Longstanding research suggests that the lack of agreed upon, effective methods as the key inputs to HiPo identification limits organizations’ abilities to discern key differences between leader emergence and leader effectiveness, or the differences between people who emerge as HiPos as a function of interpersonal skills, political savvy, and effective self-promotion skills, versus those who are effective leaders capable of building high-performing organizations, cultivating talent, and leading engaged, productive teams.

In talent management, we often have our suspicions about emergent narcissists labeled HiPos. The respect they garner among business leaders is often lacking in their own team, which is obvious to an HR professional. HR has the unique perspective of getting close to a peripheral and in depth view of an employee, and could be the first line of defense against these poor succession choices organizations make every day. The question, of course, is how do we convince business leaders to kill their darlings in the nomination process? How do we help them realize that the employee they like the most is likely not their best successor, but a mere politician? Here are three suggestions to consider:

  1. Politics contaminates data, so use better data. –Performance data of any kind is polluted at the leadership level. Scientifically valid personality assessments and 360-surveys are a good place to start.
  1. Develop everyone. A little self-awareness goes a long way. – Development investments often serve a small population of individuals who do not appear to have significant development needs, who in most cases tend to be emergent leaders with excellent self-presentation.  This approach leaves behind highly effective employees who may go unnoticed, or leaders who need help in a few interpersonal areas and may be misunderstood politically.
  2. Beware of the dark side. – A HiPo’s charisma, charm, confidence, or even conformity may make them appealing to the organization, but also may be the reason they fail to be effective in a key leadership role.  The characteristics organizations think are good in the short term will usually have a toxic dark side later, and the qualities which fail to impress them are usually key to success.
 
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