How do we equip high potential employees and others for navigating the VUCA world while retaining their engagement and commitment to the company?

The notion of a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world emerged from the US Army as a means to describe the environment arising post-cold war with the appearance of multilateral and non-state threats. It is an apt description for the environment that business now faces with significant disruption coming from political, economic and technological developments. How do we equip high potential employees and others for navigating this world while retaining their engagement and commitment to the company?

The keys to success lie in a number of interrelated factors.

Values and culture. Every company has a set of values and a company culture. However there is a wide variation in how explicit the values are and especially how well they are practised. Many examples have been given of how some companies have made a point of measuring and giving feedback to their leaders on both their performance on objectives and behaviour consistent with company values. Some are better than others at monitoring and acting on the feedback. However to attract and retain the right people companies need to consciously manage how all leaders throughout the company live and express the company values. High potentials often leave because of their manager and not necessarily because of the company.

As a leader are you making sure that your behaviour is consistent with the company values and enabling your people to perform and achieve their potential? Are there processes in place to ensure that all people leaders in your company are equipped with the correct behaviours and supported in ensuring that most of the time they are consistent with company values? I met one company recently where the leadership behaviour on display was at odds with the high potential enabling ambition being expressed. So a key starting point for engaging and retaining high potentials is putting the processes in place to ensure that the way we behave and the way we do things around here is consistent across the company in all locations. 

Authenticity. Leaders need to be themselves to be believable. That does not excuse making no effort to correct inappropriate or inconsistent behaviour. High potentials and others do not expect perfection but they do expect their manager and other company leaders to admit to shortcomings and make efforts to address them. In the VUCA world it is impossible to know everything and have the answer to everything. There will be times when leaders are challenged to find the right response to particular events. What is important is being transparent about the challenges and engaging others effectively in finding the right approach and solution. As a leader you do not have to have the answer but should at least the right approach to finding the answer. In a VUCA world that increasingly means having a good network and a collaborative approach. It is easier to continue being authentic when you are confident you know how to get to the solution.   

Optimism. High potentials have great expectations. They are energized and are looking forward to bigger and better things tomorrow. What messages are they receiving from their managers and other leaders? How often do you speak positively about the future with real belief? Companies that can provide an optimistic future and have a track record in doing so will find it easier to attract high potentials. To retain them the reality of working in the company must be consistent with the promise.

Self-awareness. “The most common profile for high-potential leaders who are likely to derail is someone smart, driven, and accustomed to pushing through obstacles to meet ambitious goals. This same hard-driving, risk-embracing style that gets leaders noticed for high performance also can cause them to experience problems with their colleagues. They are more likely to derail at some point if they don't learn to show respect for other people's perspectives and to incorporate other people's opinions to gain their commitment.”*

For a high potential leader to realise his or her potential a key ingredient is raising their own self-knowledge, especially their emotional intelligence. It is important to ensure that they have a good objective understanding of their strengths and areas for development so they have a solid platform for acting to realise their potential. Our experience of enabling high potentials to perform as expected has made us aware of the importance of identifying and preventing de-railers. These are attitudes, behaviours or knowledge gaps that can trip up the high potential and cause him or her to be ineffective or fail. It is important that there is a process in place to enable each high potential to get a good grip on strengths, areas for development and potential de-railers. What are you and other leaders in your organisation doing to foster the next generation of leaders and enable them to develop the right level of self-insight?

VUCA skills. Here is our take on some key VUCA navigating skills. These are what we as a network have found equip high potentials and others to better manage and lead in a VUCA world.

  1. Managing change and transition. Understanding the impact of change and how change affects people is now essential. For every high potential it is also very much about how change impacts me and how I am affected by change. What types of change are easy for me and what types do I find more challenging? What is my change style and what does that mean for how I deal with change and how I lead others through transitions and changes, small and large? To be truly effective a high potential leader needs to be aware of their own change preferences. They also need to have a developed skill in the tools for helping themselves and others manage transitions.
  2. Resilience and personal energy. In any change we always lose something. It may be relationships that gave us an element of confidence and security. How do we best deal with this? Some people are naturally resilient and can keep going unfazed while others can be quite affected or potentially derailed. As leaders we need to be aware of the sources of resilience and how to maintain it in ourselves and others. We need to equip our high potentials to be able to do the same.
  3. Networking and leveraging my network. Our network can be a source of energy to support our resilience. However the main value of our network is to help us address issues and generate solutions. No individual leader has all the answers. Being effective means being able to cooperate and collaborate to develop the right approach and bring the needed resources to bear to make it happen. This requires developing networking skills and also collaboration skills. A key element of networking is reaching beyond our close network. Our close network is likely to share similar thinking and approach to ourselves and so is unlikely to be a source of novel or new ideas when they are needed. If we are not equipped to work collaboratively we may not be able to get the ideas nor mobilise the people needed to make them happen. In a VUCA world we require developing stronger and more extensive networks and deploying a strong collaborative approach in order to achieve our goals.
  4. Decision making. This is where the extensive work of experts such as Kahneman and Tversky has helped us to understand the importance of how human perception influences decision-making and how to avoid the common pitfalls. There are also a number of validated tools which provide valuable feedback on de-railers in decision making. High potentials need to understand their preferences and develop their decision making style to support their success. The VUCA world requires us to be better in how we make decisions.
  5. Managing stakeholders effectively. An effective high potential leader will be managing multiple stakeholders and stakeholder groups. In order to be successful and achieve their objectives they will need a good stakeholder strategy, including identifying the needs and preferences of key stakeholders, and having an appropriate influence strategy. Some individuals have a natural flair for automatically doing this. However not everybody has this talent and with some effort invested in developing their personal knowledge and skill most high potentials can develop a competence that will help them be effective in realizing key goals. 

So how are you as a leader and how is your organisation doing in creating the conditions for attracting and retaining the high potentials who will be your future leaders and sustain the success of your business?

* This quote is extracted from “Best Practices in Developing High Potentials” – December 2010 by Association for Talent Development Staff.

high potential leaders

About the Author

Gerry Buckley

Gerry Buckley

Gerry Buckley is a Managing Partner of Performance Plus International (PPI) and a founding member of the PPI Network. He has a depth of experience in management development and training built up over many years, initially in Ireland, then in Africa and for the last 25 years in Europe based in Belgium.