A View From INSEAD

Turning High Potential Into Leadership Success

D. Charles Galunic

Professor of Organisational Behaviour
The Aviva Chaired Professor of Leadership and Responsibility

It’s nice to be identified as a “high potential”. But how do you set about fulfilling all that potential? And can you really learn to be a leader? Professor Charles Galunic, Former Director of INSEAD’s Management Acceleration Programme offers some answers…

Click on the links to review the brochure and application form of the Management Acceleration Programme.  

We hear the term “high-potential” all the time but what does it really mean?

It’s certainly not a synonym for “young age”. The term used to be used to describe the brightest and best people in the early stages of their careers. Now it applies to a broader age spectrum and is focused on anyone embarking on an accelerated path to leadership. He or she may have specialised in a field like engineering or science and, after a predominantly technical career, is finally breaking through into management – with an expectation of moving into general management one day. A key component is growing leadership responsibility and the detection of its potential.

So what are the main challenges faced by high potentials?

The main challenge is that you can’t learn to be a leader, and particularly one with broadening management responsibilities, simply by apprenticeship. You can learn the rules of accounting, engineering or finance, for example, by watching and working with experts, but less so management – and even less so general management. There is too little time and too many new and complex demands to make apprenticeship the sole path to development. People need a “boot camp” to get them up to speed on the languages of general management faster. If you try to simply learn by doing, you may end up making costly mistakes. One solution is to step away from your organisation and learn about new business disciplines and leadership methodically… which is where our programme comes in.

Can you really teach people to be leaders?

We can improve upon their potential. Nurture and nature both matter. What people shouldn’t assume is that, just because you’re an expert in your field and technically gifted, you’ll be good at leading people too. It comes as a shock to some that this isn’t completely natural and requires new concepts and a lot of hard work. It requires a shift in confidence, from a crutch that is exclusively about their expertise or technical knowledge, to a confidence in their ability to motivate and develop people. The concepts of leadership themselves are not necessarily rocket science, but people do need a dedicated process to help them learn and personalise these concepts.

How has the Management Acceleration Programme changed over the years?

The emphasis on leadership has been one of the main changes of the last decade and I think the attention we give to it is unique. We spend several days putting the theory into practice through hands-on and personal processes. The coaching component is certainly unique. We use 360-degree assessment instruments and professional coaches, along with a group coaching process, which is extraordinarily powerful. The other change I have pushed into the process of the Management Acceleration Programme is what I call “linking moments”, where faculty make connections between the subject they’re teaching and other disciplines/professors. It helps to break down the silo thinking that can hold managers back.

What’s the most memorable thing a participant has ever said to you?

A shrewd real estate professional once told me, with a sincere grin, “This programme does not cost enough.” He went on to explain that the return on investment, in terms of better decision-making, would be enormous for him. I suppose we’re looking for participants like him, who really see the value for themselves and their companies. In general, I enjoy the surprise in new learning the participants have as they go through the Management Acceleration Programme. It’s very gratifying and motivating for the faculty.

What is the greatest value of the programme in your opinion?

I can’t pick out one thing, really. It’s a combination of things. As I already mentioned, the way we give people the fundamental building blocks or languages of general management, while also providing integration, is of real benefit. Some will find one or two disciplines particularly important for their work, and so it also depends on the participant’s context and issues. And the way we kick-start individual leadership development is extremely valuable. We used to put nearly singular emphasis on the international aspect of the programme, but this has become one of several important features rather than the main feature. In the Management Acceleration Programme classroom there is no dominant culture. Everyone is a minority, which is really quite remarkable. In fact the programme is more international today than it ever was. I used to think that having Swedish, Dutch, Italian and Spanish – and every European nationality in between – made it international, but now there are people from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Japan and Australia sitting next to them.  

Do you teach your own research in the programme?

One of my research interests is in social networks, and from time to time I do emphasise this topic. I’m also interested in organisational culture and how it changes, and this is typically a feature of the organisational behaviour sessions. This topic is probably the most forward-looking element of the programme, as shaping culture is a big issue for senior managers. But it’s also a capacity that managers need to develop early, as it requires developing a keen sense of observation. Finally, I’m doing work on how budding professionals transition to management roles, and of course this is what the programme is really all about.

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