Six Skills to Grow On

By Robert J. Grossman Aug 1, 2011
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Here are some qualities HR professionals should be developing in high-potential employees:

Insight. Intuitive understanding, or the ability to grasp the true nature of a situation, is fundamental for mature leadership. To assess it, you have to delve deeply, really get to know the person ata level of familiaritythat off-the-shelf assessments or tests may not provide.

“You don’t learn about insight through boxes that they check in conventional assessment instruments,” says Michael Critelli, chief executive officer of Dossia and former executive chairman of Pitney Bowes Inc. “Forms like that are more for the convenience of the readers than for getting information from candidates. Instead, give people more opportunities for free-form expression.” At Pitney Bowes, “I asked people to write essays about their personal experiences, about what they envisioned for the future of the company.”

Crisis management skills. Consider the unanticipated, against-all-odds events that inevitably occur. There may be a SARS virus, a financial or nuclear meltdown, an earthquake. The best predictor of someone’s ability and preparedness to handle the unexpected is experience. Development assignments and simulations where high-potentials must perform under pressure are indispensible.

At PepsiCo University, the curriculum for high-potential executives at the vice president level includes classroom instruction and action-learning assignments where executive teams are challenged to demonstrate mastery of leadership skills. “We talk a lot about foresight, challenging your mental models and the need to think a lot about what may be looming,” says Leslie Teichgraeber, vice president of PepsiCo University in Purchase, N.Y. “The action-learning projects are tied to issues with real impact on our business. If you’re dealing with emerging or highly competitive markets, you need to be able to do scenario planning that will take into account various options.”

Agility under scrutiny. Effective leaders have to move quickly and decisively while the spotlight is glaring down. “Decisions come faster, and you make them with less complete information,” Critelli says. “If you wait till you can see around the corner, it’s too late. The higher up you get, the more problems come to you.”

Improvisational skills. The support and backup that many managers enjoy in the United States are a far cry from what they may encounter in some international venues. As former CEO of Pitney Bowes, Critelli found that in some international assignments, high-performing Americans tended to be nonmanagers or first-time managers used to getting their hands dirty. In contrast, higher-level executives did not fare well without the support systems they enjoyed in the United States. The ability to improvise when resources are limited becomes an essential skill best developed through experience and simulations.

Followership. Some managers look great in the boardroom and with peers but don’t rate as well with direct reports and below—a major shortcoming. Leaders must earn support and loyalty from the rank and file. “Beware picking the more polished person, favoring him or her over someone with the ability to manage below,” Critelli advises. “Great leaders need followers; 360-degree assessments and other surveys that identify how a high-potential is perceived by people who report to him or her is an essential first step.”

Outside stakeholder relations skills. Leaders must work with external stakeholders—government leaders, politicians and their staffers, opinion leaders, and others. High-potentials develop these skills through exposure. Assignments do not have to be work-related; experience can be acquired in community and public service.

The author, a contributing editor of HR Magazine, is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

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