Wishing Upon Your Stars?


David Ivers is from Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Primary and Secondary School Teacher. In total, he has served on school leadership teams for 16 years in senior leadership roles.

“You can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world.

But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”

Walt Disney

It makes sense that when an organization such as a Government agency is looking to create a ‘wonderful’ workplace, it needs more than just a ‘political’ restructure to make it happen. Some may even suggest that the notion of a Government agency being the most ‘wonderful’ place on earth to work, is the antithesis of the reality of working in a Government organization. Nonetheless, every organization should strive to be an employer of choice for the most talented people in the business. This really is where the rubber hits the road. Walt Disney was right, it takes people to make that “dream a reality”. It also takes people to keep the dream alive!

A friend recently recounted the story of how the current flag of the United States of America came to be. According to this friend, it was first created by a school student as part of a school project. The teacher gave the student a ‘B’ for their effort. In June 1959, it was selected as the flag of the United States of America and yes, apparently the teacher upgraded the student’s grade to an ‘A’. This begs the question around the assessment criteria that rendered it a ‘B’ when everyone else could see the excellence in what the student created? It also raises the question as to whether the assessment criteria allowed the student to break through the glass ceiling that such tasks often set and allow the student to show their true potential. If it were not for the competition to select a new flag, this student may never have known the potential they had and the excellence they had really achieved.

Something similar could be said of organizations, all types, and all sizes. In a Government organization, indeed in any organization, the questions that should be asked are:

  • Who are our ‘High Performing’ employees?
  • Who are our ‘High Potential’ employees?
  • How do we identify the ‘High Performing’ employees and the ‘High Potential’ employees?
  • Is there a difference between ‘High Performing’ and ‘High Potential’ employees?

These are great questions and they should be asked by governing boards due to the strategic implication that the answers have. They should also be asked by the C-Suite leaders such as the Chief Executive Officer. Whether it be the ‘High Performing’ or the ‘High Potential’ employee, the answer should always come back to training, training, and training. In fact, the questions are so important and so critical to the mission success of the organization, that Tom Peters in his groundbreaking book ‘The Excellence Dividend’, asks the following question.

“Is your Chief Training Officer (CTO) your top paid C-level job (other than CEO/COO)? If not, why not?

(Of course, I know you probably don’t even have a Chief Training Officer).” (Peters, Tom. P. 124 (2018) The Excellence Dividend: Principles for Prospering in Turbulent Times from a Lifetime in Pursuit of Excellence.

It is a great question that Tom Peters asks. It really drives home the question as to how the talent within the organization is being identified and developed?

It makes sense that when an organization such as a Government agency is looking to create a ‘wonderful’ workplace, it needs more than just a ‘political’ restructure to make it happen.


Tom Peters also makes the interesting observation as to whether there is value in identifying the ‘High Potentials’. “As a manager, I will treat all team members as possible high potentials!”

(Peters, Tom. P. 114 (2018) The Excellence Dividend: Principles for Prospering in Turbulent Times from a Lifetime in Pursuit of Excellence.  There is a lot of truth in this observation. As noted in last month’s article by this author: “Success: It’s In Your Hands (And Mind)”

  • Understand that nobody else will take an interest in your career if you’re not interested.
  • Be conscious of how people perceive you. A good leader will know when your words to them are not being reflected in what you say and do in your work with your colleagues. You need to be authentic. (Ivers, David (2019). “Success: It’s In Your Hands (And Mind).”

In other words, how the employee is perceived by their leader, often determines whether the employee is considered a ‘High Performing’ or a ‘High Potential’ employee. The problem with this of course is that it brings some degree of subjectivity to the decision. This can be minimized to an extent, though there will always be some subjectivity involved. To bring some objectivity to the discussion, it is important to know the difference between ‘High Performing’ and ‘High Potential’.

According to the ‘APS Talent Management Toolkit: Framework for High Potential’ published in 2015 by the Australian Public Service Commission:

“High potential is the capacity to move into roles of greater complexity, ambiguity and scale and is demonstrated where all three qualities (ability, engagement, aspiration) overlap, when consistent high performance is already taken into account.”

According to Adam Vaccaro (2014) writing in Inc.com:

“If your company is like most, you probably identify your next leaders from a pool of your top performers…they’ve got a reputation for delivering results.”

Vaccaro, Adam (2014) ‘High Performance Is Not the Same as High Potential’

So, the fundamental difference is that the High Performers consistently deliver results according to whatever metric is being used but may have already reached their potential. The High Potentials on the other hand, should be a high performer who can demonstrated capacity in ability, engagement and are aspirational for further leadership positions.

The Australian Public Service Commission (2015) in ‘APS Talent Management Toolkit: Manager Guide Identifying High Potential’ breaks this down into an observational checklist for managers to use.

The three essential domains with various criteria used by the Australian Public Service Commission are:

  • Ability

Cognitive Capacity, Emotional Intelligence, Adaptability and Learning Orientation, Propensity to Lead

  • Aspiration

Motivation, Career Aspiration

  • Engagement

Alignment with Australian Public Service Culture and Values, Discretionary Effort, Environmental Fit

Many of the criteria in the ‘Ability Domain’ can be learned through either tertiary study, executive programs such as ecornell.com or in-house ‘development’ programs. The effectiveness of these courses and programs though will hang very much on the employee demonstrating motivation and career aspiration and just as critical, alignment to the culture and values of the organization. The willingness to go ‘above and beyond’ for the Government agency confirms this motivation and is captured in the term ‘discretionary effort’. Ultimately, every organization wants a leader that fits the culture and the environment of the organization. It is important for the employee to understand that the leaders of the organization are observing to see whether you are firstly a ‘High Performing’ employee and from that whether you meet the essential domains to be considered a ‘High Potential’ employee. That means the employee needs to be self-motivated and take responsibility for their own professional development.

There are some things that both the leader and the employee can do, when it comes to ‘High Potentials’. Such examples include:

  • Consider a special assignment or secondment to a different position for a specific period of time. It may be an area you need to develop further but have skills in or an area you once worked in and a fresh experience gives you a different perspective of the organization.
  • Develop a professional learning plan. This should be in consultation with your leader and may well be based on industry or professional standards. This may also involve guiding the ‘High Potential’ into formal study that will allow them to take on new and different leadership roles in the future. Remember that if the leadership role you aspire to requires a degree, it can take 3 to 4+ years to complete, so planning is crucial.
  • Seek the services of a Coach, an Executive Coach, a Life-Coach, simply a Coach that will help you grow both professionally and personally.
  • ‘High Potentials’ need to understand that success does not come in a couple of large strides but in tiny steps that are taken each day. Plan to achieve something each day that overtime will take you to leadership roles you aspire to.
  • Understand why you aspire to leadership. Be certain that it is not just about power but that it is entirely about service, especially in a Government agency. Have a well thought out philosophy about leadership that aligns to the culture and the values of the organization and can be articulated at an interview.

Whilst ‘High Potential’ identification needs to be objective, it also needs to be transparent and triangulated by other processes within the organization. In essence, the employee needs to be perceived as more than just a star at 6 degrees on the horizon. They need to be perceived as a rising star within the organization, high in performance, high in potential and at the same time, high in credibility. This is critical.

As Walt Disney once said:

“Somehow I can’t believe there are many heights that can’t be scaled by a person who knows the secret of making dreams come true.”

Walt Disney



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