What Do Cocoons and High Potential Employees Have in Common?

The quick answer is that there are many types of cocoons and you need to understand how to identify which cocoons will become the butterflies. Yet, if you remember from science class, moths, not butterflies, make cocoons. And when identifying high potentials, leaders can make a similar mistake. 

Identifying high potentials from your high performers can cause similar confusion. It’s estimated that only 20% of high performers display the traits and characteristics of a high potential. Yet companies continue to promote high performers into leadership positions without carefully evaluating the potential of their high performers. 

Most companies have a disciplined approach to evaluating employee performance and I would argue that evaluating potential should be just as rigorous. Evaluating potential can be tricky because it requires forecasting future performance, unlike performance where you are evaluating historical performance. 

Defining Potential

During a recent coaching conversation, my client, Suzanne, was struggling with the performance of an employee, Saul, who had recently been promoted. I started to ask her questions to understand how she made the decision to promote Saul. She quickly responded that Saul had always been a high performer and a good team player. He had supported others on the team when they were behind on their projects or had trouble with technology. “Sounds like Saul is a high performer who likes to help others, correct?”, I said. “That’s exactly right. And leaders need to be willing to help others around them,” Suzanne responded. She was right leaders do need to be willing to help others, but leadership is much more than helping. 

We then started digging in to define what other competencies were needed to define a high potential in Suzanne’s organization. We came up with a list of five competencies that potential leaders needed to display in order for them to be considered high potentials- adaptability (being quick to adapt to changes), decisiveness (ability to make the hard decisions), curiosity (inquiring and learning), coaching (developing others), and strategic thinking (forward, big picture thinking). 

When we compared this list of leadership competencies to Saul, he was weak in two of the competencies- adaptability and strategic thinking. As a high performer in the world of technology, Saul was used to projects that were given to him. He wasn’t the one who initiated projects based on strategic needs that he identified. And prior to his promotion, he hadn’t been exposed to situations where he needed to inspire others to change in a different direction. In short, he was at a disadvantage when he was promoted. 

Now that Suzanne had a clear definition of what potential looked like in her organization and where Saul needed some help, she was able to create a development plan for Saul to help fill his competency gaps. And even more importantly, she knew the competencies she should be evaluating for future leaders before promoting them so they would be prepared for before they were promoted. 

Businesses that have solid leadership pipelines are disciplined in the approach of defining potential by using a core competency model, measuring employees against the competencies, and filling their competency gaps with a development plan to prepare them for their next position. Using this process, will help you to identify your butterflies not your moths and decrease your risk of leadership failures.

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