The Potential for What? Podcast: Episode 10 – Zara Whysall

Potential shouldn’t be a burden on individuals with Zara Whysall – The Potential for What? Podcast

This week Jo Taylor (Managing Director of Let’s Talk Talent) is joined by Zara Whysall is Associate Professor at NTU & Director of Research & Impact at Kiddy & Partners.

They talk about the volatility in the market now and how leaders can change the conversation around potential away from past or current success to how they can develop and grow past their current selves.

Leaders are going to face things that no one has faced before in the past, so how can they adapt and learn for the new situations rather that rely too heavily on past experiences.

In today’s episode we talk about:

  • ⚡️ What potential means in the world of research
  • 🕰️ Why past success doesn’t link to future success
  • 🧠 What are the critical qualities that see people reaching their potential
  • ❄️ How to release ourselves of biases and subjectivity
  • 💰How to juggle empathetic and commercial qualities (or rather not overload, and what you can stop).

How to listen to this podcast:

Links shared in this episode:

Related Podcasts

Related Blog Posts

Transcript of Episode 10: The Potential for What? Podcast with Zara Whysall

Jo Taylor  00:04

Welcome to the Potential For What podcast. On this podcast we explore how a range of business leaders unlock the potential in people. We’ll hear how they’ve done it, find out what’s worked, what hasn’t, and why this is so important in getting and keeping great people. Most businesses focus on the here and now: that is, all about performance. But at Let’s Talk Talent we like to think differently, as we fundamentally believe everyone has potential. The question is for what? So let’s explore that together.

I’m your host, Jo Taylor, Managing Director of Let’s Talk Talent, a talent management and organisational development consultancy based in London, the UK. I have a request: if you value this show, if you enjoy these stories, or find this wisdom or inspiration useful, please subscribe to the Potential For What podcast to listen to future episodes.

Jo Taylor  00:58

Hi, everybody, and welcome to the Let’s Talk Talent Potential For What podcast. I’m Jo Taylor, MD of Let’s Talk Talent, and I’m really excited to be talking to Zara today. She has two brilliant roles: the first is Associate Professor at Nottingham Trent University, and the second is Research and Impact director at Kiddy & Partners. Welcome, Zara.

Zara Whysall  01:20

Thanks, thanks very much. Great to be here.

Jo Taylor  01:22

Fantastic. So I want to start off probably not with the easiest question. But I ask everybody at the beginning of our podcast, what potential means to you. So what does potential mean?

Zara Whysall  01:33

Oh, okay. Good one. So, I would start with quite a generic definition, actually. That wouldn’t necessarily be the definition I would recommend practitioners to use, but generally speaking, I’d say potential is the ability to be or do something more effectively in future. So the ability to be more than you currently are – the ability to learn, develop, get better at what you’re doing. That would be my general definition of potential.

Jo Taylor  02:05

So when you’re actually working as Associate Professor at NTU, how are you thinking about how this impacts the work and the research that you’re doing?

Zara Whysall  02:15

Yeah it’s a really important topic. I mean, potential’s been really important for a long time for professionals, business psychologists like myself, and anyone involved in HR or talent management, but increasingly so. I think, increasingly, we need to switch the emphasis from a focus on past success – or even current performance – to somebody’s potential. What are they capable of doing in future? And there’s a number of reasons I’d argue for that shift in emphasis, primarily VUCA. So you know, the volatility and uncertainty and all of those sorts of things. And the ambiguity that we have to deal with today, in any working context, means that it’s much harder to predict who’s likely to be effective in future. And that’s what, you know, people in my world have worked, are tasked with doing, and what skills will they need to be effective in future? It’s becoming much harder to be able to do that, to be able to predict that based on who was successful in the past, because what we need to do in future will be quite different from the past. So an effective leader now, or in the past, looks quite different to the expectations of what leaders need to do to be successful are changing very fast. So I’d say the emphasis needs to change. And we need to put much more emphasis on potential: what somebody is capable of doing, rather than what they’ve done in the past. For instance, diversity, I think it’s key in terms of unlocking diversity. I think the fact that we put too much of an emphasis on who’s been successful in the past – in some research that I did, looking at changing senior leaders, often the reliance is simply on let’s bring somebody in who we know who’s done this in the past. And there’s loads of research that highlights that first of all, somebody – a CEO who was successful in one organisation – is much less likely to succeed in a second organisation. And of course, it really just perpetuates the current status quo. Reliance on a small, not very diverse population of individuals to have those roles.

Jo Taylor  04:28

So how can we change the conversation within organisations? So you worked in your role at Kiddy, like I do in LTT, with HR directors, CPOs, CEOs who are trying to find the next thing. And you’re right: they’re kind of looking at the right now rather than necessarily the future. So how do we change that conversation? What are the ways in which you’re kind of doing that that will be really useful to share?

Zara Whysall  04:54

Yeah, I think it’s only fair that we acknowledge it is harder. It is harder to switch to looking at potential instead of current or past performance, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s whether you want to do something that is easier, but unlikely to be very effective, or slightly harder – or significantly harder – but actually reliable and valid. So it’s trickier for sure. I’d start… well, the start point has to be looking at your own organisation. What’s our strategy, and therefore, what will our leaders – and I’m assuming we’re focusing in on leadership potential, but it could also apply to anyone in a critical role – what do they need to be doing in future? So let’s project forwards: what are the challenges our business is likely to need our leaders to navigate it through? How other contexts evolve, and therefore what does that mean for the qualities that people will need to be effective in the future in our business? So it’s important to not just look at what other businesses are doing. The challenges within your particular context may be different. So firstly, looking at your own context. And then secondly, looking at the extent to which individuals possess those qualities, or indeed, depending on the timeframe you’re looking at, the extent to which we can help them develop those qualities.

Jo Taylor  06:15

So when you look at the qualities, what would you say are the kind of critical ones that you see someone reaching some of the highest potential, what would you say are those qualities?

Zara Whysall  06:27

I would start with the ability to learn. Because of the fact that we operate in such a complex and changing environment these days that the challenges are going to change. Leaders are going to be faced with things that people haven’t had to face in the past. So it’s less about having the knowledge and the experience of different things, but more about those things are going to be hard to predict. Therefore, if you’ve got a strong ability to learn, a motivation and ability to learn quickly to adapt, then that will certainly put you in good stead. And going with that, problem solving. So contextual problem solving ability, it’s less about knowing all of the facts, having all of the knowledge, and more about knowing how or where to go to find that. So you know, almost crowdsourcing, not having all of the answers, knowing you’ll never have all of the answers – this is far too complex for that, but knowing where to go to find them. And I always think Jacinda Ardern shows great examples of that. Throughout lockdown she was interviewing experts, literally asking them, tell me about, you know, let’s say it was an expert in, I don’t know, stress management or isolation, I listened to one or two of these – and she’d literally just ask them, so demonstrating that she does not have all of the answers, and that as leaders, we need to demonstrate that we don’t have all of the answers. That’s not a requirement anymore for effective leadership. It’s knowing where to find them; having the humility to know when you need to ask. And I’m sure a whole host of other things, but the top two that come off the top of my head are those.

Jo Taylor  08:10

Brilliant. So how do you make sure that it’s not subjective? I’ve done multiple succession planning processes in my time, and you get the manager to assess, you never really ask the individual, it kind of feels a bit that it’s part of an assessment, and you’re sort of going through a process and then you come out the end and you’re put into a box. In your experience, what are the best ways of getting to that sort of rounded… that balance between that science and art, but ultimately putting the human first?

Zara Whysall  08:40

It’s a good question. There’s lots of thoughts that spring into my head on that one. So obviously, given that I’m an Occ Psych by training, I would always argue for the importance of reducing subjectivity, avoiding subjective opinion, you know, manager opinion. It’s very hard to rid ourselves – even trained professionals – from biases. And of course, the closer you are to the individual, such as a manager, the more biases you’re likely to have. So I would encourage lots of caution around using manager opinion. Of course, they do know the individual well and see their performance closely. So that’s the only caveat there: it has a role, but we need to have a process that’s more structured that, you know, Occ Psychs are trained in trying to reduce or minimise bias using standardised approaches that focus on the things that matter, and hopefully try to steer us away from being influenced by the things that don’t matter – that might appear to matter in the moment, such as likeability, for instance. So there’s all of that, but also, you mentioned the fact that individuals are humans and I think this is an important realisation. I mean, of course, as a psychologist you’d hope that we don’t forget that – but in terms of the candidate experience, it’s becoming more and more important, the fact that professionals like ourselves need to recognise that talent in people aren’t there simply for us to use them for our own means or for the means of the organisations that we’re trying to support. It’s important to ensure that this is a good process for them as well. So I think it’s a really good question. And increasingly, people in our field need to put lots of thought into the candidate experience to make sure it’s a positive one. So even if it is an assessment process, for instance, that it’s developmental as well, that doesn’t have to be purely assessment, you can do a good assessment, but make it also a really positive developmental experience where the individual gets some good insights, some feedback, and all of those sorts of things. So I think you’re quite right to highlight the fact that that shouldn’t be forgotten. So yes, to try to have rigour, but not forget that this has to be a positive experience as well, and something that the individual gets something out of.

Jo Taylor  11:01

I agree, because I think the best experiences that I’ve had when I’ve gone through any sort of assessment has been that that feedback, that realisation, that ‘aha!’ moment, where I’ve gone… you know, there was some things that I kind of knew, but it’s been highlighted… we’re all work in progress, aren’t we? But sometimes we overplay and sometimes we underplay our strengths. And by working through, as you say, a developmental process enables us to understand ourselves more, which I think goes back to your point about humility, and being willing to be vulnerable, which I always admire in a leader. And when I’m thinking about the greatest people I’ve worked for, they’ve had that humility to admit when they’re wrong, but also be able to listen and lean in when they need support.

Zara Whysall  11:45

Yeah, absolutely. A big part of potential is that it’s recognising that we are all unfinished. And that, until we’re done, we’re all unfinished. And there’s always more that we can learn. So asking for feedback – you would hope to see leaders at every stage of their career still asking for feedback. How am I doing? Especially given that the expectations of the people that they’re leading are changing, so no matter how effective you think you are, that’s constantly changing, because the expectation is changing,

Jo Taylor  12:17

But it’s quite hard, isn’t it? You talk about change, and the expectations, I think on leaders is much tougher now. You’re expected to be everything. Sometimes you’ve got to wear a different hat, you’ve got to be a coach, you’ve got to be a mentor, you’ve got to be compassionate, you’ve got to be empathetic, you’ve got to care. But you’ve also got to be ruthless, and you’ve got to be driven by the commercial. It’s quite hard for somebody to live up to those expectations, right?

Zara Whysall  12:43

Very hard. It is. The challenge is, we tend to just pile in more qualities, more desirable qualities, don’t we? So the list just gets longer and longer. And you’re right, it becomes an impossible thing to do. First of all, we need to, as professionals, try to resist the temptation to just pile in more and more things. There’s some good research which shows that some qualities are what academics would call ‘discontinuous’. So they stop becoming useful at different stages of a leader’s career. It’s not just about developing new things, you know, developing that strategic, for instance, element as you get more senior, but also about stopping doing some other things, or at least deprioritising them. So recognising and supporting leaders to prioritise different things at different times, hopefully, should help it feeling like an impossible list of things that we’re asking people to do.

Jo Taylor  13:38

Because we’re in danger of, in a way, fatiguing our leaders, aren’t we? And sometimes having that culture of “hero to zero”.  So you talked about it at the beginning, when you said that a CEO that’s done brilliantly in one organisation, and then goes on to be a CEO of another, may not be as successful, because actually the environment, the people, the factors are different. So what got you here might not get you there. How do you mitigate for that, and what support should businesses put in place to stop that happening?

Zara Whysall  14:13

Yeah, absolutely. I think what goes wrong here is that we put too much emphasis on the individual and not enough on the context that surrounds them, in terms of development and even fulfilling potential. There seems to be this assumption in some organisations that once we’ve identified who we deem to be the people with the high potential, it will just naturally unlock. We just need to identify them, tell them… I mean, sometimes not even tell them… but identify them and put them in some key roles and away they go. Which is kind of crazy, isn’t it? Because it’s an interaction between the person and the qualities that they bring and the context. It’s a bit like planting a sunflower seed and sticking it in a dark room. We organisations, we, professionals like ourselves, need to take the responsibility. It shouldn’t be a burden that an individual has to shoulder alone when they’re labelled “high potential” or identified as having high potential; it’s a shared responsibility. So we need to make sure we’re offering them all of the stretch feedback, you know, a rich environment that can help them thrive, rather than planting a sunflower seed and leaving it in the dark and just expecting it will magically flourish. So let’s absolutely put emphasis on the context in terms of that, and also just in terms of the CEO having been plucked out of one organisation and placed into another, helping individuals, you know, first 90 days onboarding processes, helping them navigate the organisation, helping to shortcut that process that we all have to go through on joining a new organisation often and navigating the culture, really trying to help support them to accelerate that. Here are the people you need to know, a kind of a 101 to the culture. This is how you succeed here, and these are the things that perhaps might be a bit unique to us and different to how you’ve succeeded in the past. Otherwise, there’s the risk of that tissue rejection, isn’t there?

Jo Taylor  16:18

Oh, absolutely. I’m writing a blog at the moment on onboarding. And it says that if you have a really good 90 day experience, that person is 85% more likely to stick with you than leave. And if you don’t, I think it’s in the first 90 days 45% of people at a C-suite level leave.

Zara Whysall  16:43

Wow. Which is so costly for an organisation for many, many, many reasons. reputationally as well. But yeah, I can completely understand that from the individual’s own experience, but also their perception when a senior individual is brought in, especially from outside – all eyes on them, right? And what are they going to do there? And let’s see. And if it all just goes a bit quiet, and nothing really happens, or, you know, it maybe going on behind the scenes but people can’t visibly see the impact of this new person that’s been brought in quite soon, then I think they’re really struggling, aren’t they, to try to change perceptions about them? And I can understand why that would be hard and result in the stats that you just cited there. So yeah, just put the emphasis on an effective induction process: onboarding, and all of those sorts of things.

Jo Taylor  17:33

So Zara, if people wanted to read more about you, or get in touch with you, and learn more about what you’re doing, where would they find you?

Zara Whysall  17:41

LinkedIn, no surprise to say, is a good starting point. I do post on LinkedIn every now and then, both academic stuff and practitioner stuff, given that I’m a hybrid of those two things. So yeah, that’d be fantastic. If anyone’s listening, and they’re interested in connecting, please do.

Jo Taylor  17:56

And finally, is there anything that you’re listening to, that you’ve read recently, that you’d like to pass on as a kind of, you know, pay it forward, this is what I think is really great about talent management, potential – love to hear your favourite podcast or book?

Zara Whysall  18:13

Well, I mean, the thing that I read most of I wouldn’t recommend – it’s academic papers. And there’s only a small fraction of them that are digestible. So I do try to consider that part of my job to help disseminate those. So that is some of what you’ll see on my LinkedIn, I try – if I find a really good paper – I will try and sort of decode it and pull out the practical implications. But in terms of other things that are out there, I’ve been enjoying the CIPD podcast, I think it’s called “Work”, just like the magazine. That’s been quite good. But other than that, I do need to get back into my running this year. So perhaps it’s this podcast, Jo – perhaps it’s this we should recommending?

Jo Taylor  18:59

Love it. Thank you so much. It’s been really fascinating talking to you. And I’ve learned a lot, into deeper meaning of potential and how we as HR leaders can take that forward. So thank you so much.

Zara Whysall  19:11

No problem at all.

Jo Taylor  19:16

Thanks for listening to the Potential For What podcast. If you’re hearing this message, you’ve listened to our new episode all the way to the end, and for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart. We hope you enjoyed this episode, and if you did, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Please share this episode with others who may be interested in this topic. As always, you can head over to to check out all the links and resources in the show notes and to sign up to our email list.