The Potential for What? Podcast: Episode 5 – Alex Terry

Why potential is distinct from past performance with Alex Terry – The Potential for What? Podcast

This week Jo Taylor Founder & MD at Let’s Talk Talent welcomes Alex Terry who is a Business Psychologist and now Associate Client Partner at Korn Ferry.

We talk about high potential programmes, how to avoid bias in them, and how you might go about understanding the difference between emergent leaders and effective managers.

In today’s episode we talk about:

🥚 Emergent leaders vs effective managers

💿 Importance of taking a data driven approach for diversity

🏊‍♀️ Why you need to cultivate your internal talent pool

🌊 Can you open up the flood gates of self-nomination for talent programmes

❤️ The true value of giving your people psychological safety

Join us on our fifth episode of “The Potential for What? Podcast”. We’ve got a lot to get through, so let’s get to it.

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Transcript of Episode 5: The Potential for What? Podcast with Alex Terry

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, 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 00:00:55
So welcome everybody to our next episode of the Potential for What podcast. I’m Jo Taylor, MD of Let’s Talk Talent and I’m thrilled to be talking today to Alex Terry, independent business psychologist. Alex, how are you?

Alex Terry 00:01:09
Very well, Jo. Thank you so much for inviting me on.

Jo Taylor 00:01:13
Brilliant. So I’m really excited to talk to you about potential today. Because I know that you’re going to have for our listeners some really deep and meaningful thoughts. So no pressure whatsoever. But we haven’t looked at potential so far from a psychology perspective, and especially from a business psychology perspective.

So what would be great is if I start off with a question that I’ve asked everybody and really ask you to define what you think potential is.

Alex Terry 00:01:41
Sure, no worries. Yes, in terms of what I think potential is, I see it as a forward focus concept. So the aspiration, perhaps as of yet untapped capabilities, embryonic behaviours that we might have, that we can apply to new and different tasks and be successful. So from an occupational psychology perspective, it’s distinct from past performance and I think that’s really reassuring because it means that whatever we’ve done to date in the past isn’t going to be holding us back in terms of the potential we have to do different things and be more successful in the future. So I hope that answers your question, Jo, but that’s how I see potential.

Jo Taylor 00:02:20
So why do you think people get obsessed in organisations about measuring performance and potential? Because sometimes talking to senior leaders, they’re always confusing performance and potential. They’re always thinking that people who have high performance are their stars. But actually, as you say, it’s about forward motion and thinking about potential for what that person could become. How do we start to get leaders to start to think about it in the way that you’ve just really succinctly described it?

Alex Terry 00:02:51
I think it’s genuinely a real challenge because we are asking leaders or managers to identify things that may well be quite invisible to them. And also I feel very sorry for managers when they’re having to nominate individuals as high potentials, or that sort of thing, because it can be so divisive.

It can ruin the culture that you’ve got in the team and they’re often not given any sort of criteria to go against. So I think that the use of the word ‘potential’, the language of potential, is really dangerous in organisations and I’m beginning to think personally that it’s outdated and there isn’t such a place for it in an inclusive and diverse organisation environment that most organisations are striving for right now.

So the title of this podcast is so apt, Jo, because the “for what” has got forgotten, and the word potential gets bandied around in companies as if you’ve either got it or you haven’t. And given that a small slice of individuals get nominated for things like HiPo programs, that leaves the majority of your company feeling as if, well, have I got no potential?

So the ‘for what’ must be aligned to the word potential if it’s being used. A hundred percent. Because you could have potential for enterprise leadership, you could have potential for expert technical delivery. I believe that everyone has that capability to grow and develop. And what’s different is the shape of that potential.

Jo Taylor 00:04:16
I fundamentally agree with you, and that’s why I set up Let’s Talk Talent, because I fundamentally believe that everyone has talent and this Potential For What podcast, as you say, is about trying to change people’s perspective because everybody has potential, as you say, whatever that might look like – and what success looks like to an individual can be very different from you, to me, to Charlie in my team, to Craig.

It’s about unearthing and really looking at this from an individual perspective rather than from a box, ultimately.

Alex Terry 00:04:46
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I agree. And I think that is the problem, that organisations to date really need different types of talent. They need different pools of capability or future capability. Given that I think the stat is that 50% of placements actually come from external hires, which is a real great shame.

Jo Taylor 00:05:05
So when you look at this from a psychology background and you think about the factors of potential, there are a hundred million models out there. So some people use JDI: judgement, drive and influence, don’t they?

Alex Terry 00:05:18
Yeah, they absolutely do. And there are some very good models out there that aim to reveal some of those core factors of potential. And many of them have elements of judgment and decision making in there, of motivation and aspiration, of learning agility that might include change agility, people agility, influencing – all those aspects.

And I think what they have in common is that they’re trying to get to things that will enable people to apply their experience or to remain adaptable in the face of a novel situational circumstance. My advice though is make sure that the “for what” is taken into account. What type of leadership are you looking to assess potential for, or what type of role or what type of future challenge?

And in doing that, you have to pay attention to the operating environment, the context, the future changes, drivers, shifts that are going to happen to your environment or sector in order for you to hypothesise what the right sorts of approaches are going to be successful.

Think about how things work in your organisation, what makes it difficult to get business done, what’s going to change in the future and what does that mean for the types of capability that you actually need? There’s some interesting research being done right now by Zara Whysall, who’s head of research at Kiddy & Partners, and also associate professor at Nottingham Trent University, where she’s looking at the nature of those environmental factors. That should really help organisations to tailor assessments appropriate to their organisation and hopefully get much better success.

Jo Taylor 00:06:46
I think I’ve seen that quite a lot in organisations that I’ve worked for, that you have that hero-to-zero mentality, so someone’s brilliant, say in marketing, and then you put them into business development and you’ve not set them up for success. So you’ve not given them coaching, you’ve not really identified what’s the gap and created that development.

Alex Terry 00:07:05

Jo Taylor 00:07:06
So how do organisations… I think we were talking before in preparation for this podcast about some research that’s been done by Bob Hogan. And I think he’s been talking most recently about the sort of development side of potential.

Alex Terry 00:07:20
Yeah, I was at a conference recently with Bob Hogan speaking and what he said was really interesting. Quite a lot of assessments for the concept of potential in whatever format that takes the potential for what that we spoke about. Quite a lot of assessments start incorrectly by just taking a slither of individuals and not really throwing the gates open wide enough, and I can understand that. Because organisations are strapped for budget, for resource, for a number of placements. And it can be quite overwhelming thinking I’m going to have everybody wanting to get on this programme. But I would grasp that fear. I would throw it open to the whole organisation where possible and allow for self-nomination because if you don’t get diversity in at the start, that’s going to perpetuate through the upper echelons of your organisation.

And just as you say, Jo, I’ve seen individuals in one company perform to an average level and then go on to achieve amazing things elsewhere. So we know that environment plays a part. And we know that actually some of the best talent in organisations isn’t necessarily tenured talent and isn’t necessarily visible talent. And this is where Bob’s research comes through. So he looked at group of high-performing managers and he noted that a proportion of those tend to promote well, earn lots more money, they tend to network a lot. They’re really good at managing upwards, right? And he defines those individuals as emergent leaders. They’re the individuals that tend to find their way into HiPo programmes. But there’s a whole other cohort of really amazing managers, right? And he labels these as effective, but they’re different in terms of their behaviours. These are individuals who perform really well in the job, perhaps.

But in terms of their visibility, it may be poorer. They are focused inwardly on the team and they’re enabling effective team performance that beats the competition, but they’re often overlooked. So consequently, organisations need to work a lot harder to identify some of these effective managers for their potential programmes and not just be noticing the emerging ones. And hence why a really open and inclusive approach to assessment is really necessary.

Jo Taylor 00:09:29
Are there any particular industries or particular companies along your journey that you’ve seen have done this really well, and you thought they were ahead of their time or they’re really thinking about it in a different way?

Alex Terry 00:09:40
Yeah there’s one particular financial services organisation who has bitten the bullet and moved towards self-nomination for their programmes, and they’ve kept it really open.

So whereas you might be tempted to categorise those that are eligible by tenure, for instance, they’ve created a benchmark of just two years within the organisation. So it can be a range of seniority that are coming through the programme, which is excellent. It’s not easy to do for this organisation in particular.

It requires more of a funnel approach. So the same level of effort you would put into a volume hire you need to do in terms of the allocation to your high potential programmes.

It’s got to be a staged process to enable the funnel to work. And the other thing that’s really important when it comes to attracting people in, is to share the ‘what’. So most organisations spend more time on their realistic job previews and sharing information about roles to their external candidate audience, compared to their internal audience. If you don’t share, inspire and provide information about what you are looking for, you can’t really expect people to show interest, desire, and aspiration. So my advice is that, not everyone is power hungry. Not everyone is inspired by potential for a senior management position, but individuals may be inspired by the problem solving that’s involved, the strategic decision making that’s involved.

Research by Korn Ferry shows that only 14% of organisations feel very confident in the people that they’ve identified for their HiPo programs.

Jo Taylor 00:11:11
So how do you make sure that bias, so unconscious bias… and make this as inclusive as possible? Because I’ve definitely worked with organisations where when they’ve looked at succession planning and they’ve looked at the measurement of performance and potential, that there’s been a lens to try and promote certain groups because they’re lacking, say women at senior leadership. How do you make sure that things are inclusive, but also that you are not unconsciously biased to a certain type?

Alex Terry 00:11:41
Take a data driven and scientific approach, is my advice. Start with a proper role job analysis of what are the kind of skills and attributes that are required for that role, and then stay true to it. That’s my advice. And avoid things like line manager nominations where you’re putting people in really difficult positions.

People don’t want to be biased. But these are difficult decisions to make. So use objective, well-validated and reliable tools to help you with the process.

Jo Taylor 00:12:10
The final question I wanted to ask you in terms of the Potential For What is really about choice. Sometimes when businesses create these HiPo programmes and they might have their ‘why’, maybe that they want to increase mobility because it’s a global organisation, sometimes it feels as if the person doesn’t have a say, and they’re nominated, and if they don’t accept that they’re going to be relocated to the US, or Singapore, or wherever it is, they’re looked at as not having ambition or not having drive. How important is it in taking into individual considerations as much as that kind of ambition and feeling that you are developing people and their careers?

Alex Terry 00:12:53
I think it’s incredibly important. You’ve got to pay attention to individual’s aspirations and motivations. In my mind, if you designed a robust process that really shares what the opportunities are about, what the programme is about, and created an environment where you can self-select in and you have choice, then these situations shouldn’t arise.

Jo Taylor 00:13:19
Brilliant. Thank you so much. I want to finish off by asking you a few questions on yourself really.

So Alex, what is your favourite podcast/video/book that you are reading that our listeners can get inspired by and learn something?

Alex Terry 00:13:36
Right now I am reading a really interesting book on the topic of psychological safety, and it’s the Fearless Organisation by Amy Edmondson. Everything that we’re talking about is about unlocking people’s potential – and in order to spur learning and avoid preventable failure and encourage innovation and people to try new things, you do need psychological safety. It’s not the only thing you need for high performance, but it’s certainly the thing that is often the handbrake that organisations have pulled up right now. So I would encourage people to read the Fearless Organisation to understand a bit more about how you can take that handbrake off and enable potential to succeed.

Jo Taylor 00:14:17
So if listeners wanted to talk to you or learn more about what you do, how can they get in contact with you?

Alex Terry 00:14:24
So I’m not a big social media user, similar to Ewa who you had on your recent podcast. So like her, I’m on LinkedIn, so by all means look me up on LinkedIn, it’d be great to speak to individuals who have been interested in this topic.

Jo Taylor 00:14:37
Brilliant. Thank you so much, Alex. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you and I’ve learned a lot about the kind of psychology behind potential and I hope that our listeners have too. As always, if you are interested in our podcast and learning more, please do sign up and I look forward to talking to you on the next podcast.

Thank you so much.