What is a high-potential employee? Most companies have a clear picture of the characteristics that indicate a top performer: intelligence, charisma, verbal skill, and the ability to be both part of a team and lead one. These skills definitely fit the criteria, but too many leaders stop there. They tend to see and promote only one kind of high-potential talent, when in fact they need two.
Consider the experience of an executive we know named Jack. Jack was a star. He’d spent nearly a decade at an innovative business-to-business startup in a high-tech field. His expertise and acumen drew the attention of a large technology services firm, which recruited him to head up a new line of business.
If you saw Jack in action, you knew he brought value. When he sat down with clients, or took the stage at a conference, people walked away informed and impressed; he clarified issues they’d never considered before. His job at his old company focused on this skill, casting him as a subject-matter expert. But his new company had a much broader range of technology services, from application development to cybersecurity to governance. They needed him to link his expertise with all of these capabilities, but he couldn’t quite figure out how to do that. The value he brought never translated into revenue.
If you saw him in action, you knew he brought value. But it never translated into revenue.
After a year of lagging sales, the leaders wondered if they’d made a bad bet on Jack. Two years of stagnation later, they were ready to let him go. If he couldn’t make an opportunity like this take off, they figured something must be wrong with him.
We too used to assume that when a new venture didn’t grow as expected, the leader was to blame. But we were wrong. We now know that it would have been a terrible mistake to let Jack go. He was still the right hire for the business; it’s the job he was given that was wrong.
The change in our perspective was influenced by in-depth research we did on more than 100 self-made billionaires. From early 2012 to 2014, we ran a qualitative research study on some of the world’s wealthiest people who did not inherit their fortunes. Our goal was to understand the factors that enabled self-made billionaires to succeed, and whether established businesses have something to learn from them.
In our research, we found that self-made billionaires have a collection of internal skills — what we call habits of mind — that they apply to everything they do. These habits of mind tend to lead to a particular type of success, the type that eluded Jack. They include:
· Empathetic imagination: seeing blockbuster potential where others see only change
· Patient urgency: operating simultaneously at multiple speeds and time frames
· Inventive execution: bringing together creative functions and operational departments
· Taking a relative view of risk: worrying about the larger future instead of immediate losses.
These are the habits of people we call producers — innately innovative people who can conceive new business ideas, and bring together the disparate and sometimes conflicting business designs, resources, and talent to make those ideas successful in the market. All of the self-made billionaires we met are producers.
But producers are only one type of high-potential professional. The other type is performers — people with the ability to optimize known systems and products. These often are recognized experts like Jack. They have different habits of mind. They are accustomed to surpassing expectations within established criteria. They can take an enterprise that someone has designed and make it work; they’re like actors who can shine on almost any stage, but don’t know how to set a stage themselves.
Performers and producers tend to spark different reactions among the people around them. Performers generally get along with their superiors (and everyone else), because they meet expectations. Producers, who are disposed to confound or bypass expectations, are more likely to experience conflict; 25 percent of self-made billionaires were fired from established businesses early in their careers. Perhaps that’s why most stars in such businesses tend to be performers — and why most hiring, recognition, compensation, development, and human capital systems tend to favor performers over producers.
But every truly successful business needs both high-potential producers and high-potential performers. In fact, our research shows that the majority of self-made billionaires created value as half of a producer–performer pair. Think of Apple’s Steve Jobs (producer) and Tim Cook (performer); or John Paul Mitchell Systems’ John Paul DeJoria (producer) and Paul Mitchell (performer).
Before our work on producers and performers, we might have agreed that the company should replace Jack. But we know now that Jack is not holding this business back. The company asked a star performer to do a producer’s job. Jack was expected to imagine new businesses, but that’s not where his talents lie.
So we proposed instead that the business find a producer-complement for Jack — someone to come up with a business model that leveraged his expertise. Jack and his new producer co-leader may have to try a few business models before landing on the right one. But the business has a much better chance of success now — and so do Jack and his co-leader.
What about you? Is your business faltering? Do you have the right mix of producers and performers in the right roles? Can you design a partnership in which both types of high-performing leaders can complement each other and thrive?