For those who are fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs the 2022-23 Stanley Cup playoffs represent yet another year of high expectations and disappointing results. This year was supposed to be the Leafs’ moment of glory after fifty-five years of hockey drought.  Unfortunately, success was again not in the cards, and the Buds headed for the golf course after being quickly dispatched in five games by the upstart Florida Panthers.

How does a team with so many successful, talented players such as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly manage to once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? Shouldn’t a team replete with so much talent be a shoo-in to win, or at least, go deep into the playoffs?

Sadly, having a core group of star performers does not, in and of itself, guarantee success.  The dynamic that produces a winning team or a successful senior management cadre, has much more to do with chemistry and teamwork than it does with a few high performers.

The Role of High Performers

Sports is often used as a metaphor for business.  This is particularly true in the case of High Potential employees, persons often called “HiPo’s”.  For those who may be unaware, a HiPo is an employee who is identified by the present senior management as a strong performing employee who is seen as having the talent, skills, presence and ability to progress to senior roles in a company.  Like promising sports prospects, HiPo’s are often targeted early in their career, and receive opportunities, training and special projects that are intended to groom them to assume more significant roles within an organization.

The process by which HiPo’s are identified varies according to the industry and size of the organization.  In large organizations such as banks or financial institutions succession planning is a well-defined activity.  Often, there may be employees or units within a Human Resources Department whose mandate it is to review and identify talented individuals throughout the organization who are capable of moving into more responsible assignments.  Performance reviews, psychological assessments, specialized training programs, self-evaluations, rotational assignments and coaching support from supervisors and mentors, are just some of the tools that are used to track, tap and develop High Performing individuals.

Truth is:  HiPo’s represent a small fraction of an organization’s replacement capability.  While they may work in a variety of different roles in most companies, the work they do is usually core to the company’s business model.  For instance, in a bank chances are most HiPo’s will be found in areas such as corporate lending, credit or account management.  The other characteristic is that most of them have advanced degrees, usually MBA’s.  A third characteristic is that most of them exude what is typically called “executive presence”.  Charisma, an outgoing personality, and personal magnetism, usually go “hand in hand” with High Performers.


Having a senior team of superstars may not be as effective as a cohesive team of consistent performers (Photo courtesy of August de Richelieu and Pexels)

Shining Lights or Flickering Flames?

With a handful of individuals tapped as being high potential, what then is the fate of lesser lights within an organization?  How do individuals who are not tapped as High Potentials respond to and deal with the realization that their career trajectory isn’t equal to those of so-called “superstars”?

I’ve often asked myself these questions as I’ve observed several HiPo’s in the workplace. In fact, two were individuals I reported to directly.  Sadly, both were spectacular failures, but in truth, it wasn’t entirely their fault.

The fact is that the very notion of High Performers is predicated on an elitist and archaic business model.  Often, the failure of HiPo’s is as much a function of fallacious assumptions as it is of poor execution:

  • Not every employee is a Renaissance Man or Woman.  To expect that someone who is a Finance specialist can competently master the technical demands and understandings during a rotational assignment in Information Technology, Marketing or Human Resources strains credulity.  At best, HiPo’s may be reasonably expected to make a modest contribution as a member of a project team, but to put them in charge of the entire Department or business unit is, I submit, somewhat naïve.  Oddly, this practice still occurs, and reflects a rather simplistic view of the complexity of modern organizations and the demands of different departments.
  • On-the-job tenure is too limited.  Most High Potentials are put in a job for a year to eighteen months, and then shifted.  That may seem adequate, but consider that in most roles it takes six months just to begin to feel comfortable with the culture, mission and personalities within a department.  After a year, most may begin to see some small successes and achievements.  Shortly thereafter, it is time to move on.
  • Nothing is ever confidential. Despite the best efforts of senior management to maintain the confidentiality of HiPo lists nothing is truly confidential.  Those who are HiPo’s know it, and those who aren’t identified as HiPos’s also know it.  There is an inevitable build-up of resentment and animosity towards those who are tapped for the fast track.  Building commitment, engagement and loyalty thus becomes an uphill battle for High Performers.  For instance, how do you inspire colleagues who aspire to the very role which the HiPo is being groomed to assume?
  • HiPo’s often possess egos equal to or bigger than their ambitions.  When you are tapped early on to assume a more significant role it’s perhaps not surprising that a little hubris can emerge. Often, High Potentials believe their favoured status accords them special rights and privileges.  Ego can sometimes be a limiting factor that compels some to avoid self-reflection or prudent second thoughts.  I’ve often thought that there is a high correlation between the fate of child movie stars and High Potentials.  In both cases, early success can later result in some disappointing later career plateaus.

A Final Thought….

Most seasoned sports commentators will tell you the Toronto Maple Leafs possess some talented players.  They could, and should, have gone deep into the playoffs this year, and perhaps, won the Stanley Cup.  The fact they didn’t is attributable to many factors.  However, I would submit their biggest failure and shortcoming was largely due a lack of depth.

History can be a great teacher.  If you look back to the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup in 1967 they had a nucleus of star performers (i.e. Keon, Mahovlich, Bower), but these individuals were supported by a much larger cadre of players who may not have attracted lots of public attention, but were consistently good at what they did.  Those who, like me, are Boomers, will likely remember players such as Brewer, Armstrong, Pulford, Nevin, Stewart, Stanley and Horton.  Simply, what the 1967 Leafs had, which the current Leafs do not, is depth.  

The same is true of organizations.  You can’t build an effective, fully functioning department on the backs of two or three High Performing individuals.  What is a more effective ingredient for success is a team comprised of selfless individuals who can check their egos at the door, understand the concept of teamwork, and who recognize that there is no substitute for consistency and hard work.  A focus on team development ensures that there are multiple contributors, and that everyone is considered pivotal to organizational success. Conversely, building an organization that is centred around high performing individuals is a prescription for disaster.

You only have to look at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ fortune this past year to confirm the salience of this observation.