THE HUMAN HI-POS AND LO-POS
THE EINSTEINS AND FAKERS
By JUDITH TIMSON
Globe and Mail: Wednesday, March 24, 2004 -
In the award-winning play and movie Amadeus, Antonio Salieri, a dignified court
composer in 18th-century Austria who turns out perfectly fine and often lovely
music, is driven mad by his jealousy of another musician at court, Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart, who is clearly a genius.
What enrages Salieri most is that the young Mozart, while composing some of the
most sublime music ever heard, is shockingly badly behaved, or in the words of
one courtier, he is "an unprincipled, spoiled, conceited brat."
Well, that is unfortunately often the case with top talent, especially in its
incipient stages. And one of the key challenges of any organization -- not just
the court of Austrian Emperor Joseph II -- is how to recognize that talent,
nurture it and keep it moving forward, all the while managing its
eccentricities. (Not to mention soothing the Salieris left behind.) After
decades of brutal economic circumstances in which companies have had to struggle
constantly to redefine themselves, it's interesting to consider just how much
hard-to-handle behaviour is really tolerated these days.
Quite a bit, according to Prof. Jeffrey Gandz from the University of Western
Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business, who delivered an amusing talk on the
While there may have been a time when the emphasis was so firmly on "corporate
fit" that companies like IBM would choose the least objectionable (and in some
cases least interesting) candidate, now, he says, "it's quite healthy -- people
are recognizing talent more than they ever did and companies are going out of
their way to find and keep outstanding talent."
Prof. Gandz was speaking in Toronto to a roomful of human resources managers and
senior executives from companies featured in the 2004 edition of Canada's Top
100 Employers ( by Richard W. Yerema, published by Mediacorp), so presumably
they already know how to snare and retain top leadership talent.
But Prof. Gandz, who is not only the managing director of Ivey's executive
development program, but has also worked in leadership development for General
Electric -- generally acknowledged to be one of the world's best companies in
nurturing talent -- offered an insightful refresher course.
Two things are true of top talent, he said. Top talent requires a different
method of care and feeding, and top talent can be, well, a pain in the ass.
"Some of them are not nice people." Or, as the professor said, apologizing in
advance for his language, "it's hard to tell the difference between a rising
star and a flaming asshole."
This doesn't mean you can get away, as young Mozart did for a while, with
running through the court or office making poo-poo jokes and laughing
uncontrollably. Obviously, says Prof. Gandz, elaborating further during a phone
interview, if you're so obnoxious that you're "an organizational sociopath, no
one is going to be able to liberate your talent."
So what are the characteristics of moderately well-functioning highly talented
people, be they accountants, engineers or any other professionals? The obvious
-- drive, focus, passion, intelligence. They want to work in a winning
organization and they want to be with other top talent. They need to be
constantly challenged -- "they are challenge junkies" says Prof. Gandz -- and
they don't want to be part of any ordinary team going through predictable hoops.
They want to be individually recognized and rewarded. In other words, "annual
performance reviews are not how you manage top talent." (Instead, they need to
be reviewed on a project-by-project basis.) Stellar talent and high leadership
potentials usually make up only about 15 per cent of any company. They get
frustrated very quickly if they are working for executives who sit on their
talent and let it waste away, so they need to be placed with "leader-breeders."
A company should use its top talent to identify and hire in quantity other high
leadership potentials, or what Prof. Gandz calls hi-pos. And the good news about
hi-pos is that despite their insecurities -- they often secretly consider
themselves frauds -- they can usually handle "brutally candid feedback," he
says. On the other hand, low leadership potential employees, or lo-pos as Prof.
Gandz calls them, are generally more defensive about criticism.
A good company must know how to smoothly manage the hi-pos and the lo-pos,
especially so that the lo-pos don't become one of the so-called po-pos "passed
over and pissed off about it.") It is the difficult task of every good company
to identify its talent and then create and manage what Prof. Gandz calls
"inequalities but not inequities" -- you give the top talent a gigantic bonus
but "that is where candour comes in" when you deal with the lesser lights. "It's
terribly important for people who aren't hi-pos to be treated and managed well,"
Prof. Gandz says.
Yet we are all masters of self-deception, so the tricky part is coming to terms
with whether one really is a hi-po. Some people take themselves out of the
action, acknowledging they don't have either the talent or the drive to do what
In Amadeus, Salieri freely acknowledges that he is mediocre. Some would say that
is the very definition of a midlife crisis -- realizing you're good but not
great at what you do. Mediocrity doesn't have to be negative, says Prof. Gandz,
it's simply "in the middle."
A wonderful scene in the movie depicts the finally completely broken-down
Salieri, the "patron saint of mediocrity," being wheeled through an insane
asylum bellowing "mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you." (Meanwhile, it's also
worth noting that Mozart didn't fare so well either -- he died young, penniless
and banished from at least one court.)
I asked Prof. Gandz just how good he is at spotting high potential leadership
talent in his classroom. "I'm pretty good at picking out the potential," he
said, "but how it turns out in the long run? Well there are lots of mistakes
Prof. Gandz, who perhaps too modestly describes himself as a "journeyman
researcher," says "there's a little bit of Salieri in most academics." But of
course we absolve them, especially if they are as amusing as Prof. Gandz.