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Are you (still) “high-potential”?

By November 9, 2012 One Comment
By Ben Sands – For additional insights, tools, and leadership resources, click here

We are “high-potentials” all of our life until, suddenly, we aren’t.

Suddenly, it’s not about how much we will do; it’s how much we have done.  Suddenly, it becomes a debate as to whether we have “lived up to” our potential…or wasted it.

This is a gut check for many young professionals with whom I work.

Told for much of our lives that we have the potential to “do anything we set our mind to” we start, in our late 20s and early 30s, to question whether that’s really true.

Slowly, but surely, we start to ratchet expectations down; make the small mental compromises required to get comfortable with living a comfortable – as opposed to extraordinary – life.

How do we keep our high-potential status? How do we keep our edge?


First things first, let’s define what we mean by “high-potential.”

Research & advisory firm CEB defines “high potential” as the intersection of:

  • Ability – Innate intelligence (cognitive and emotional) and learned skills
  • Desire – For the respect, recognition and rewards that come from high achievement.
  • Drive – A high-degree of intrinsic motivation; emotional connection to the work which leads to discretionary effort.

Those that feel that they’re no longer “high-potential” have lost one or more of these three unique traits.

Given that it’s hard to lose you aptitude – your innate skills and capabilities – then we need we can narrow things down to one of two root causes:

  1. You’ve lost your desire
  2. You’ve lost your drive

I’d argue that desire is hard to lose, too. Most of the young men and women with whom I work still want – implicitly – to live an extraordinary life. They want to work hard, to work well, and to enjoy the spoils of that hard work (specifically feelings of impact, respect, love, financial security, etc).

No, in most cases, what is being lost is drive; our engagement in our work – and life.

CEB has a term for high-potentials who have lost their engagement: “Disengaged Stars.”  Not surprisingly, following the most recent economic downturn, the number of Disengaged Stars reached an all-time high.

My guess is that you know a few…

Maybe you were one yourself?

I know I was.

The good news: I got my “hi-po” status back…you can too.


So, how do we get it back?  How do we find the “drive” again?

Let’s start with understanding why / how we lose it in the first place?

We lose our drive when we lose our connection to a greater meaning and purpose in our work.

This typically happens for two reasons:

  • Reason #1: The nature of our work changes. As the high-potential moves into roles of broader scope and challenge, our day-to-day responsibilities and realities can change – for better or worse.  In addition, the company for whom you work can change. Since 2008 so many stars have lost their engagement to a companies that adopted new post-downturn policies, procedures and priorities.
  • Reason #2: The new reality in which we live – in this case the economic and social hardship felt by so many, calls into question the meaning of our own lives.  We are forced to reconcile our existing path and purpose – with this new reality.

So, how do we get our “hi-po” back? How do we “re-engage”?

Two ideas here:

1. Clarify priorities.  Who are you?  What do you really want?  And how does the work you are doing today map back to this over-arching goal?

  • Note: For the young idealist tempted to spontaneously, and foolishly, quit their job…this re-engagement exercise is most often possible by a simple shift in focus.
  • Once you’ve clarified your priorities, force yourself to answer this question: how does the work I do today, align with my priorities? How is this work align to the strategy I’ve established to achieve those priorities?
  • Force yourself to come up with at least 10 ways before looking for a new job; it’s typically an easier and far more effective to catalyze re-engagement.

2. Focus on service.  It’s been said many times that we are likely to work far harder for others than we are for ourselves.

  • How is the work you are doing today, making life better for those whom you care most about?
  • For most, the real driver of discretionary effort comes from a connection to service.  For proof you need look no further than our recent Presidential campaign. Legions of men and women, young and old, spent months knocking on doors and turning out the vote in a spirit of service.

Ultimately, you’ve got to connect to your cause. You’ve got to re-connect with the reasons why you want what you want.

For some, this requires real change (job, relationship, geography) but, for most, it’s a more subtle mindset shift.  For most of us, it’s simply a renewed focus on where, how and why you are adding value to the world. As opposed to focusing on the little nuisances that you are occasionally required to endure.

My view: you don’t lose your (high) potential, you simply choose not to apply it.

So, no more feeling sorry for yourself; no more settling.

Time to choose.

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Ben Sands

Author Ben Sands

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