June 2013 | 

High-Potentials: Moving Up and Staying There


According to executive coach and best-selling author Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here won’t get you there.” To succeed as you ascend the organizational ladder, in other words, you need new and better skills. Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade explains, “Many people assume that the higher up you go, the higher your level of emotional intelligence. But this is not always the case; people on top are often good at managing up. But that’s not enough; you need to be able to continue to develop and maintain relationships up and down the hierarchy, and show an awareness of how others think and feel to effectively motivate and lead.”

Barsade, who serves as faculty director of High-Potential Leaders: Accelerating Your Impact, says that awareness extends to how others may treat you in a new role. “The people around you can reinforce the effects of increased power to disinhibit one’s behavior. They start to tell you what you want to hear; they laugh at all of your jokes. If you aren’t prepared for the potential for power to change you and those around you, you won’t realize that you are no longer getting the real feedback necessary to do your best work.”

The antidote, she says, is threefold:

  • Don’t always believe your own press
  • Surround yourself with people who will give you honest feedback
  • Treat those below you like you treat those above you

An aviation executive who recently attended the program says Barsade showed him the value of getting good feedback. “I developed my own inner circle that includes people above and below me in the hierarchy. We meet on a weekly basis, and I always ask what am I doing right or wrong, and what I need to pay attention to. In my position [as site manager] it is a relief to sit with them and talk candidly. There’s a high level of trust and I depend on it.”

He says the program also gave him an opportunity to test his skills in real time. “We went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and studied a couple of paintings with a guide. We were asked to describe what we saw. [This is a session that Professor Barsade conducts in conjunction with Linda Friedlaender, Curator of Education at the Yale Center for British Art.] You realize a few things pretty quickly: although you get presented with a lot of information, you don’t need to focus on all of it; your first impressions may be completely wrong; it’s important to take the time to look closely before making a decision; and don’t think your perspective is the only one.”

He adds, “It showed me the value of taking a step back to reflect on those things before making a decision. The exercise drove that point home in a very real way. Even when you’re in a high-pressure, high-stress environment, you don’t have to react immediately. Take a minute to make sure you have the right information. I have paid attention to that since I got back from the program and recognize the power of slowing down and not shooting from the hip.”

The emphasis on growing these skills through real-time, practical sessions, is a key component of High-Potential Leaders. Barsade notes, “We don’t keep the discussion at a theoretical level. The faculty who teach in the program are all very much geared toward translating cutting-edge research to immediate practice. We are teaching what you need to do next Monday when you are back at work, from how to read others’ emotions and express yourself in daily work interactions, to how to handle difficult conversations. This elite group of executives is planning for their next step, and we help them get there.”