#NoFilter: It’s time to redefine “potential”

Organisations need to start thinking about how they can catch people who don’t fit into prescribed boxes of “high potential”.
By: | March 19, 2019


As someone who attended actual “Crazy Rich Asians” schools for 12 years, the recent release of the eponymous film got me and a few former schoolmates talking.

Not so much about how wealthy certain peers were – that’s old news.

Since we’re all hitting our 30s now, we were more interested in gossiping about where everyone ended up in the big game we call life.

No small number have gone into their respective family businesses, or started their own (with parental seed money, of course).

Others still are what we call the “high-flyers”. They have built lucrative careers in the public and private sectors; not just here in Singapore, but also in big cities like London and New York. These are doctors, lawyers, engineers, fund managers — all the who’s-who of the typical “highest-paid jobs” lists.

In school, many of these people were the so-called “high potentials”; tapped for leadership positions and prestigious development programmes even as teenagers.

They were prefects and team captains, they competed in international competitions, and they attended gifted classes. That they would go on to thrive professionally was entirely unsurprising to the rest of us “normals”.

What was surprising, though, was the fact that just as many of the successful high-flyers had been straight-up ignored by the school system.

Don’t get me wrong: these people were not targeted or discriminated against. They just hadn’t been singled out by teachers or principals to receive special attention.

They were not part of the elite minority of “top students”. Their grades weren’t anything to shout about, and they didn’t have stand-out skills in sports, or music, or art.

But they were self-starters, who had the determination and competency to carve out their own paths.

Certainly, a few were late bloomers, who just needed time to figure out their place in life. Maybe for others, the very fact of not being considered “special” was exactly the motivation needed to work hard and triumph.

Personally, I think it’s a flaw in how many educational institutions identify high-potentials.

It’s a flaw shared by multiple organisations. For instance, at one place I worked – let’s call it “The Bureau”– government scholars and graduates of Ivy League universities would be placed on the fast track for rotations and promotions. Senior leadership took a personal interest in ensuring that these people had individual projects to execute and champion.

I know of several Bureau employees who were not part of this fast track – but who resigned, and went on to do great things at other places. One even got accepted into Harvard Law School.

To be fair, maybe he just wanted to be a lawyer, and never had an interest in a career at the Bureau, anyway. And I’m sure some of those other instances could not be helped, either – perhaps there were mismatches between employee and role.

But those people still had promise of some kind. The Bureau was just unable or unwilling to see it.

Who knows what could have been accomplished, if only The Bureau saw all employees as talent worth fighting for and developing.

Rather than obsessing over brand names and grades, maybe we need to start thinking about how we can empower each individual to be their best selves, and help each employee bring out their full aptitude.

In the bigger picture, such an approach is more likely to catch those people who don’t fit into prescribed boxes of what “high potential” often looks like.

It’s also likely to help organisations make sure that each and every employee has the opportunity to unleash their potential, however high or low it is perceived to be.

That isn’t just for the benefit of the employee, but for the business too.