‘High Potential’ to lead: Q&A with Professor Jay Conger

There’s a secret to getting promotions and moving up to executive levels within an organization. Jay Conger, CMC’s Henry R. Kravis Research Chair in Leadership Studies, is in on this secret. As one of the world’s foremost experts on leadership in business, Conger has coached thousands of managers and senior executives in leadership development. The key, according to his new book, is to be identified as a “High Potential.”

While on sabbatical, Conger wrote “The High Potential’s Advantage: Get Noticed, Impress Your Bosses, and Become a Top Leader” with PepsiCo Senior Vice President Allan Church. The book investigates the world of High Potentials, pulling from research and interviews with executives and senior human resource officers to reveal “five critical X factors” common to these leaders.

Conger, Director of the Advisory Board and Kravis Fellows Programming at the Kravis Leadership Institute, spoke with CMC about his new book and how students can get a jump start on the X factors before they enter the job market.

How did you get interested in leadership? How did this interest lead to studying High Potentials?

My interest – or I should say my passion – began early in my life. My father worked in the U.S. State Department’s Office of Protocol, where he hosted world leaders on their visits to the United States. I heard stories about the impact of these individuals, and it sparked my interest in wanting to be a leader. So, I dived into leadership roles in high school and college and also worked on political campaigns. I worked in both government and business for a number of years, learning the real challenges of leadership on the job. Eventually, I decided to become a professor, and leadership seemed the most appropriate topic to study and teach given my passion for it.

Interest in the topic of potential is really the result of an early childhood brush with death. I had a very serious accident where I came close to dying. As a kid, I remember thinking that life was very precious and that I had to live life fully and realize my potential. My dilemma was that I was not certain what my potential was, nor how to realize it.

What inspired you to write “The High Potential’s Advantage”?

I have long been interested in individuals who are high-performing throughout their careers. What makes them tick? What sets them apart from others? How do they continually reinvent themselves? My quest was to understand what attributes made them special, so I could help others and myself develop these same qualities.

You interviewed a number of High Potentials for this book. What commonalities did you find between them?  

You’ll have to read the book to really find out! But to give you a taste, we found that these leaders possessed five qualities in spades: situation sensing, talent accelerating, career piloting, complexity translating, and catalytic learning. The first two are critical in your early career. The next two help you to become a senior leader. Catalytic learning is the foundational factor that drives all the others. High Potentials are able to learn and keep learning even after remarkable successes. They are deeply curious and always on a quest to improve themselves to be better and better in their chosen careers. More importantly, they are always turning their learning into action and initiatives. They are not passive learners; that’s the catalytic part.

What is the most surprising insight you gained about High Potentials in leadership positions from your research?

I’m impressed by the power of organizational cultures. We don’t fully appreciate how powerful this force is in both selecting and shaping who is seen to possess potential. I like to say that you want to choose your next job based as much on the culture of the place as the content of the job itself.

The book states that being designated as a High Potential is key to upward mobility in large firms. How does this translate in a shifting job market with smaller organizations like tech start-ups?

The same factors apply, but more so. In smaller organizations, the five X factors are accelerators, allowing you to become more masterful as a leader at a faster pace than your peers. Entrepreneurial firms demand that you step up at an accelerated rate into leadership roles of far greater complexity than the last you held. The X factors are foundational to learning and adapting at the fast pace your start up is moving.

Can students develop the five X factors before they enter the job market?

They can start cultivating several of the X factors, especially situation sensing, complexity translating, and catalytic learning. For example, many students underestimate the importance of managing their professors. Much of what a liberal arts college teaches is complexity translating, and at the heart of education is learning – though not always the catalytic part.

Do you see a connection between leadership in the classroom and future success in the boardroom?

Complexity translating is such an essential skill for leading in the boardroom. Your ability to translate the complexity of your organization and your markets to individuals who are often not from your industry – the case with most boardroom members – will determine how well you lead your board. So, cultivating this skill early on is critical to one’s long term success.

What do you hope readers gain from this book?

I want readers to understand the steps to cultivating their potential. Equally important, I want them to realize that these steps are within their reach. The book outlines very clearly what the X factors are and how to cultivate them in yourself. These are not the qualities of a special few, but you need to first be self-aware and actively invest in your development. The message of the book is very clear: leadership is a never-ending process of learning. You have to be a catalytic learner throughout life. Finally, I hope readers get greater clarity about the ‘black box’ processes behind talent assessments and how they can influence their outcomes.

You are on sabbatical at the moment. What is on your horizon after you return to CMC?

I look forward to getting back in the classroom! I am particularly excited to apply the insights from this project on High Potentials to class experiences. I am also thinking about my next research topic. The challenge with my field is that it is very crowded in terms of books and articles on the topic. So, someone like myself has to look for the new angle – the one that is both poorly understood and yet absolutely essential to success as a leader. It is a tall challenge, but I have always been drawn to this particular challenge. I enjoy the search as much as the research.

The High Potential’s Advantage: Get Noticed, Impress Your Bosses, and Become a Top Leader” will be published by Harvard Business Review Press on Jan. 9, 2018.

—Michael Tesauro