Identification of high-potential technical people in technical organisations

HR Management, Project work Russia & East Europe, Talent Management | 2 comments

I’ve had lots of jobs, either as line manager or the senior HR person, in technical organisations. Where most of the people are engineers and/or scientists. And I am very aware of the difficulties involved in the identification of high-potential people (‘hipos’) in these types of companies. Especially compared to non-technical hipos, such as in finance or strategy, in the same organisations, who almost all seem to be high potential, at least according to themselves and their bosses! Strange given that such an organisation may be made up of 90% technical people. Because you really do want a large number of your future leaders to have had a technical background and career.

In Kazakhstan, I and my consulting group had an interesting challenge with one of the daughter companies of the National Oil Company KazMunayGaz, KazTransOil (KTO). The oil pipeline company is a very large and important company in its own right.

KTO is also a highly technical company, but using its current high-potential process the identified people (the so-called cadré reserve) were predominantly non-technical (strategy, finance, economics) and hence they were unable to fill their senior positions in technology (for example Chief Engineer) from their high-potential pool.

Based on global best practice, and using my own extensive experience, it appeared possible that:

  1. Technical staff may be less likely or have less opportunity to display behaviours often linked to the classical definitions of high potential
  2. Technical staff may display different behaviours of high potential than the classical definitions
  3. Leadership in technological organisations may be less inclined to identify someone as high potential in the first place, having a more down-to-earth and critical approach than those leaders in more commercial areas. And individuals may also be modest and not promote themselves.

We held interviews with the KTO leadership team spread throughout Kazakhstan, to identify the behaviours that they felt their technical people displayed that are high-potential. In addition focus groups of lower managerial and supervisory staff were also held in all locations. The current processes of high-potential identification and the assessment techniques were also studied.

There was general agreement about the competences and behaviours for high-potentials and these were similar to the standard competency model with a couple of exceptions. Technical skills were seen as paramount for the basis of ‘talent’, developed level by level and job by job. Hence their emphasis on talent identification was stage by stage and might take 10-15 years before it was clear to them that someone has the track record and potential to be a top leader.

Continual self-improvement (learning agility), devotion to technical improvements and innovation, decisiveness, analytical skills, communication skills with all parties (colleagues, clients, JV partners, Governmental agencies), and ‘bright eyes’ were key differentiators. Bright eyes. They know it when they see it. Not really what you want to hear when trying to set up objective and measurable criteria. But I knew what they meant.

Incidentally other issues were also raised with the process that may lead to exclusion of technical people outside of Head Office in Astana from the talent pool. And many of these were familiar to me from other technical companies and their talent programmes. These included doing ‘real jobs’ onsite and ‘loaded’ with work so that such people would not be nominated or apply for the talent pool; technical people (and their bosses) being conservative and modest; a feeling that technical people are undervalued; the lack of non-technical training for technical staff; the misunderstanding that people have to apply themselves (they indeed could do but they could also be nominated by management as in most other similar companies); the lack of relocation support; assessments (numerical and verbal) being written and using examples based on an economic or planning part of the organisation rather than as technical examples (although the factors being tested remained the same, as I could not believe that engineers would not be able to do the fairly simple numerical problems).

As a result of our study, assessment tools were rewritten to be more appealing for technical people (whilst assessing the same qualities as before); there was a uniform understanding of the senior leadership of what technical high-potentials looked like and why the process was important for the future of KTO; and the issues and perceptions surrounding the high-potential process were addressed. The result was that the vast majority (in fact almost all) of identified high-potentials in the following yearly round had a strong technical background.

My conclusion is that KTO was no different than many other technical companies around the world who also grapple with the issue of identifying future talent. Definition of high-potential need to be described in terms of behaviours that technical people (and their managers) can display (and recognize). Individuals need to be less modest about their potential and senior line managers – although remaining critical and down-to-earth – need to accept their leadership accountability and understand the importance to the future of their organisation in daring to identify high-potential in their younger, technical cadré, earlier. Allowing the opportunity to broaden and test these people in different experiences and jobs. And check the brightness of their eyes.


  1. Allan J Cohen

    Each company needs a few key executives, leaders and managers. It truly needs outstanding technical staff. There should be a true technical career ladder to progress to jobs of increasing responsibility and compensation. And there should be a competence-based evaluation system, as part of this. Technical generalists and technical specialists should be handled somewhat differently.

  2. cesar delgado

    nice pic. for the women workers..


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