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Accelerating the Development and Mitigating Derailment of High Potentials Through Mindfulness Training

R. Andrew Lee
Principal, Andy Lee Coaching

Everywhere and at all times, it is up to you to rejoice piously at what is occurring in the present moment, to conduct yourself with justice towards the people who are present here and now. - Marcus Aurelius

The development of future leaders is one of the most critical human capital functions of an organization and is directly related to its long-term success. Unfortunately, the vast majority of organizations have yet to master the process of developing high-potential managers into future leaders. In a major research initiative involving 122 companies globally, The Corporate Leadership Council (2006) found that 75% of companies listed the development of high potentials as a top priority of both the CEO and the HR organization, and 80% had increased their spending on high-potential development in the past 2 years. However, the majority of companies had only seen a moderate return on their investment, and fully half of companies reported that the failure of newly promoted executives was a significant problem. What’s going wrong?

The purpose of identifying high potentials (or “hipos”) is to target promising managers for differential investment. Hipos are given more job and project opportunities and have access to more development resources. But although differential investment creates development opportunities, it also presents these aspiring leaders with some additional challenges. Hipos are under greater scrutiny by senior management than other managers and under more pressure to produce results. They are often given more challenging assignments and faster promotions, which can push their development capacity to the limit and increase the potential for failure. In addition, the qualities that lead to high potentials’ success early in their careers do not guarantee success in more senior roles, or as Marshall Goldsmith (Goldsmith & Reiter, 2007) says, “What got you here won’t get you there.”

How can companies increase the success rate of their hipos in achieving the success and contribution that their potential promises? The answer may not lie in providing more assessments, training programs, action learning projects, or job assignments. Rather, it may lie in teaching them to pay attention. Or, more accurately, in developing their ability to be fully aware and open to the experience of the present moment. This is known as mindfulness. Although the concept is not yet well known in executive development circles, it is being studied extensively in other branches of psychology. The results suggest that mindfulness could significantly accelerate the development of high potentials and also reduce the likelihood of their failing to reach their potential. This paper discusses how mindfulness training can be leveraged to drive hipo development.

What Is Mindfulness?

In common language, mindfulness is simply “being in the moment”—being fully present and aware of what is going on right now. It means giving your full, open, and nonjudgmental attention to the present moment and situation. Mindfulness can be developed through meditation practices such as sitting still and attending to one’s breath or simply attending to one’s thoughts and emotions as they emerge and dissipate (Goldstein, 1994). However, there are numerous other practices that can be used to develop mindfulness, many of which can be practiced while engaging in day-to-day activities (e.g., Thornton, 2004).
The state of mindfulness has several inherent qualities (Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007):

  • Present focus. Focusing on the present moment as opposed to thinking about past events, current daydreams, or future possibilities or concerns. This state is more rare than you may think: Research shows that people spend 50% of their time thinking about the past and future (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010).
  • Awareness. Cultivating ongoing awareness of both external surroundings and internal states, including thoughts and emotions. An example would be monitoring one’s thoughts and emotions in stressful situations instead of reacting impulsively.
  • Nonjudgment. Maintaining an open, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s surroundings.

This allows you to perceive events for what they are as opposed to judging them against what you expected or what you think would be preferable. It is important to note that nonjudgment, specifically in relation to problems, does not imply complacency or indifference. Rather, it refers to adopting a pragmatic acceptance of reality as opposed to engaging in denial, rationalization, or resentment.

As the capacity for mindfulness grows, it also leads to the development of secondary qualities that are relevant to personal well-being and social functioning. First, as greater awareness and objectivity is developed in relation to one’s thoughts and emotions, mindfulness leads to greater self-acceptance, including both one’s virtues and flaws (Thompson & Waltz, 2007). The need to deny or rationalize away weaknesses recedes, as does the habit of overfocusing on flaws and shortcomings. These mental habits are replaced by a clear-eyed assessment and acceptance of one’s qualities, both positive and negative.
Another secondary quality related to mindfulness is the calming of the ongoing need to support and defend one’s ego and self-beliefs. This development of a quiet ego (Bauer & Wayment, 2008) results in less emotionality and defensiveness in the face of ego threat brought on by situations like competition and failure (Brown, Ryan, Creswell, & Niemev, 2008). Finally, mindfulness also leads to greater empathy for others (Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner, 1998). The ability to see others without ego-based filters, and in a state of nonjudgment, opens one up to understanding and appreciating the perspectives and priorities of other people with a new level of understanding.

The descriptions presented above may well remind the reader of another attribute of successful leaders, that of emotional intelligence, or EQ. The four components of EQ are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management (Goleman, 1995). These factors, especially the first three, overlap significantly with the primary and secondary qualities of mindfulness described above. However, whereas EQ is focused primarily on understanding emotions in order to improve social relationships, mindfulness has a broader focus of enhancing one’s awareness of all aspects of the present moment. That said, the development of mindfulness may well lead to increased EQ (Goleman & Kabat-Zinn, 2007). This is especially noteworthy because a recent review of the efficacy of EQ training “did not provide sufficient evidence concerning whether it is feasible to increase EI [or EQ] in individuals, or how to carry out EI training” (McEnrue, Groves, & Shen, 2010).

What Does Mindfulness Look Like?

For readers new to the concept of mindfulness, the description above may seem to describe an otherworldly state that is far removed from our day-to-day experience, especially in the workplace. Yet mindfulness is a quality that occurs naturally in everyday life. Perhaps you can remember an unusual sight or experience that caused you to look around and fully appreciate your surroundings in the present moment as if you were seeing them for the first time, such as seeing a breathtaking vista or a child at play. Or in the office, mindfulness can be encouraged by pausing in the midst of a busy workday to take a deep breath, lean back in your chair, look around your workspace, and listen to the sounds in the office around you. Unfortunately, experiencing the absence of mindfulness is far more common, such as being asked a question in a meeting just to realize that you had not been listening or sitting on the beach on vacation and thinking about nothing but the presentation that has to be done upon your return.

Mindfulness is also an individual difference; some people are naturally more mindful than others (Brown & Ryan 2003). Perhaps you know or have met people, possibly leaders, who are able to give their full attention to each person and situation they encounter, regardless of how packed their day is; or who look at situations with fresh eyes and ask questions with an unbiased curiosity that often reveals new answers; or who rise above petty conflicts and see beyond the faults of others, to find common ground and build relationships. In contrast, less mindful leaders are more likely to pay only partial attention to the people they come in contact with, to make assumptions and jump to conclusions based on their particular world view, to assume that they already know the answer to questions, or to react impulsively or emotionally to perceived slights or the shortcomings of others. Perhaps you have met some of these as well.

Mindfulness Training in the Workplace

Mindfulness training has grown rapidly in popularity over the last 15 years as an effective component in the treatment of a number of physical and psychological ailments. The most widely reported benefits of mindfulness training are the relief of feelings of stress and its physical symptoms, as well as a general improvement in mood and sense of well-being. But mindfulness training and mindfulness-based therapies have also demonstrated their efficacy in treating a wide range of ailments including anxiety, depression, hypertension, and sleep and eating disorders; and in easing the symptoms of asthma, diabetes, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and fibromyalgia (see Baer, 2003, for an overview). Today, many therapists incorporate mindfulness practices into their work (Germer, Siegel, & Fulton, 2005), and mindfulness is broadly recognized as an effective therapeutic tool.

Mindfulness training is now beginning to make inroads into the workplace. Numerous companies have implemented mindfulness training programs in the workplace, including Apple, Dell, Ford, GE, Google, IBM, Nike, 3M, Toyota, and Yahoo (Boyce, 2009; Der Hovanesian, 2003; Duerr, 2004). In general, the goal of these programs is to reduce stress and increase well-being among staff. Mindfulness is gaining traction in leadership development (e.g., Carroll, 2007) and leadership coaching (e.g., Silsbee, 2004). Successful executives have attested to the impact that mindfulness has had on their ability to lead (Brandt, 2008; Silverthorne, 2010).

Programs and testimonials aside, academic research on the impact of mindfulness on work effectiveness is sparse and has centered mostly on its cognitive effects (see Dane, 2011, for a review). In this line of research, mindfulness training has been shown to improve concentration even after relatively brief training (Zeidan, Johnson, Diamond, David, & Goolkasian, 2010). Results from the U.S. military’s Mindfulness-Based Mental Fitness Training (MMFT; Stanley & Schaldach, 2011) program have also been encouraging. This program was implemented to help Marines better deal with stress and maintain their cognitive edge during the difficult run up to deployment. Their results showed, not surprisingly, that mindfulness practice resulted in significantly lower stress and more positive affect. In addition, although the performance of Marines on a working memory test declined over this period, those who practiced mindfulness exercises during this period actually improved their performance (Jha, Stanley, Kiyonaga, Wong, & Gelfand, 2010).
Although research on mindfulness in the workplace is still in its infancy, the evidence to date suggests that it may have much to contribute to the satisfaction and performance of employees and the effectiveness of leaders. In addition, based on our knowledge of how mindfulness works and how leaders develop, there is reason to believe that this is especially true for the development of high potentials.

Mindfulness and Hipo Development

Although the development of mindfulness training has many positive effects, it holds specific promise for the development of high-potential employees. The potential benefits accrue in two aspects of high-potential development. First, it can increase high potentials’ effectiveness in the high- visibility, high-stress roles they are commonly assigned. Second, it builds the qualities and capabilities that can minimize hipos’ likeliness to derail.

Accelerating Learning Under Stress

Many different approaches have been taken to develop high-potential managers, including programmatic training, mentoring from senior executives, and providing individualized feedback and coaching (Silzer & Dowell, 2010), but the core methodology is to promote learning from on-the-job experience by providing hipos with a variety of leadership roles to expose them to different challenges (McCall, 1998; Yost & Plunkett, 2010). In this approach, hipos are given challenging jobs or assignments in order to accelerate their learning.
Research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership over the last 20 years suggests that experience is indeed the best teacher, better than learning from relationships with others or from formal training activities (McCall, Lombardo, & Morrison, 1988). Although skills and concepts can be learned in many settings, it is in the crucible of experience that deep self-knowledge can be developed and leadership lessons are fully internalized. Because hipos are seen as the best and brightest, they are provided with particularly diverse and challenging work assignments to accelerate their development. Not surprisingly, the ability to adapt to and learn from new situations and experiences is deemed one of the key qualities of successful high potentials (Lombardo & Eichinger, 2000).
But developing hipos aggressively on the job is not without its challenges. High potentials are commonly placed in intentionally challenging settings. For example, common high-potential job assignments include international roles, moves across lines of business, moves from line to staff roles, or significant increases in spans of control. They may also be assigned a role in a new business start-up or be asked to turn around a struggling department (McCauley, Ruderman, Ohlott, & Morrow, 1994). In other words, high potentials need to be able not only to learn from experience but also to deliver results, and to do so under challenging, and likely stressful, conditions.

The level of developmental challenge of a job can impact a person’s ability to learn. When developmental challenge rises beyond a certain point, skill development plateaus and then begins to drop (DeRue & Wellman, 2009). One of the reasons for this may be that high levels of stress interfere with learning and memory (Chen, Dube, Rice, & Baram, 2008). Therefore, it is likely that the stress-reducing effects of mindfulness training would enhance a person’s ability to learn in developmentally challenging situations. Research on the military’s MMFT program (discussed previously) supports this idea. The ability to observe and accept events openly and in the moment in stressful situations seems to free up additional cognitive capacity that would otherwise be used up by stress-driven anxiety and distraction.

DeRue and Wellman (2009) propose that an individual’s learning orientation can be another influence on hipos’ ability to benefit from challenging developmental assignments. According to the authors, people with a strong learning orientation will continue to reap developmental benefits from roles regardless of their level of developmental challenge. In contrast, people with a weaker learning orientation experience more stress, and they are more likely to become overwhelmed and take steps to protect their self-image by withdrawing from future challenges.

The nature of mindfulness suggests that it may also enhance learning orientation. A key quality of the state of mindfulness is a nonjudgmental openness to present experience, which is consistent with a high learning orientation. In addition, the greater self-acceptance and “quieter ego” that emerges through mindfulness suggests that mindfulness training would lead hipos to be less motivated to protect their self-image at the expense of learning.
To summarize, mindfulness training is proposed to improve hipos’ ability to learn during challenging developmental assignments by reducing their stress, which will increase their ability to learn. Further, mindfulness training should enhance learning orientation, which may reduce the tendency to feel overwhelmed and reduce self-image–protecting withdrawal behaviors. But the situational stress of accelerated development is only one side of the challenges facing hipos. Another challenge is rooted in the qualities of hipos themselves. This challenge is known as derailment. It threatens not only to slow their learning but to knock them off the hipo track altogether. However, mindfulness can play a role in mitigating its effects as well. 

Mitigating Derailment Risk

Derailment is the process by which people who are highly successful early in their career become unable to advance beyond a certain level and may in fact suffer significant career and performance setbacks. As summarized by McCall (1998), the factors that lead to the derailment of high potentials include one or more of the following:

  • Strengths are overleveraged. Strengths that enabled early career success are overused or used inappropriately. For instance, self-confidence and technical brilliance taken to the extreme can lead to a lack of openness to others’ ideas.
  • Weaknesses become more important. Early career success can be driven by one or two towering strengths, but success at higher levels often requires a broader set of skills. For example, high energy and determination can mask an inability to delegate at lower levels in an organization, but this can become a serious impediment to performance in a leadership role.
  • Success leads to arrogance. More generally, early career success can lead to the belief that a person has all the skills and knowledge required for success in any situation. This belief diminishes the motivation to seek out and learn from feedback and the willingness to develop new skills and change one’s approach.

As this process unfolds, the behavioral tendencies that derailing managers demonstrate include poor emotional self-control, insensitivity, the failure to build strong relationships, and difficulty dealing with conflict and failure (Hogan, Hogan, & Kaiser, 2010).
What can be done to mitigate this process? Once again, the qualities that are both inherent in and supported by mindfulness could play a key role. The first of these qualities is self-awareness. Hogan, Hogan, and Kaiser (2010) propose that developing self-awareness is the most important factor in mitigating derailment. This includes the awareness of one’s own weaknesses and personality flaws and awareness of how one is perceived by others. The authors go on to recommend 360-degree feedback as an important tool to develop this capacity.

As stated earlier, awareness, and especially self-awareness, is a key component of the construct of mindfulness (Brown & Ryan, 2003). To be mindful is to be aware of both your surroundings and your internal thoughts and emotions. So mindfulness training would seem to be a most appropriate intervention. In addition, mindfulness would add incremental value beyond 360-degree feedback because it targets a different quality of self-awareness. Whereas 360-degree feedback increases knowledge of oneself and how one is perceived by others, it is less clear whether it increases self-awareness in the moment. Therefore, 360- degree feedback could more accurately be said to build self-knowledge. In contrast, mindfulness develops both self-knowledge—through the awareness and unbiased acceptance of one’s self as it is—and true self-awareness, defined here as the awareness of one’s thoughts and emotions in the moment.

In addition to increasing self-knowledge and self-awareness, mindfulness training may also undermine the attitude of arrogance that can accompany early career success. Arrogance is defined as an overbearing attitude of superiority and an exaggeration of one’s own worth or importance. In contrast, mindfulness training results in the development of a quiet ego, which refers to an attitude of greater humility and less self-centeredness (Bauer & Wayment, 2008).

The quality of hipos’ relationships could also be impacted by the development of mindfulness. The positive effect of mindfulness on both mood and emotional self-regulation could help to undermine the tendency to be emotionally reactive. Mindfulness training has been shown to improve emotional self-regulation by increasing the tolerance for unpleasant stimuli and by speeding the recovery from negative emotional events (Brown et al., 2007). In addition, the development of greater empathy as a result of mindfulness training could counteract a tendency to be insensitive and could enhance hipos’ (or anyone’s) ability to build stronger relationships.

To summarize, mindfulness training could lead to hipos who are happier, calmer, less arrogant, more self-aware, and more empathetic, which would undermine many of the major causes of derailment. Taken together with the potential improvements to learning discussed in the previous section, there is reason to believe that mindfulness training could both support the development of high potentials though developmental assignments and mitigate their derailment. But are there any downsides to developing mindfulness in high potentials? Would companies truly benefit from developing a cohort of kinder, gentler, more empathetic hipos? Would they have the same drive to succeed if they are truly more calm, open, and empathetic? After all, can’t insecurity and neuroticism be powerful motivators?
Clearly, mindfulness is no magic bullet for hipo development. Perhaps the most obvious reason for this is that mindfulness training does not develop many of the capacities that lead to early career success to begin with: intelligence, determination, ambition, and charm (McCall, 1998). On the other hand, there has been no research done to date, and there is no reason to believe that mindfulness training would dampen the drive to achieve and contribute to the success of an organization. More likely, it would lead to hipos who are not overwhelmed by new challenges, who build strong and authentic relationships, and who harness their abilities to make sound decisions and accomplish valued objectives as opposed to being sidetracked by professional distractions and preoccupations.

Developing Mindful Leaders

Let’s say that a company is interested in implementing a program to increase mindfulness among their high potentials as part of their leadership development strategy. What would it look like? How would it work? At the current time, there are no clear precedents. Although mindfulness training is offered in many organizations in order to promote employee well-being, a talent management organization will run into several challenges when trying to adapt such training for high-potential development.

The first challenge is content. To be clear, any reputable mindfulness training program will provide a good measure of the benefits described above. However, most current mindfulness training programs are focused on reducing employees’ stress levels and improving their sense of well-being. And although the content may be effective, the way in which it is communicated may be foreign, even anathema, to a group of hard-charging hipos. They may not be receptive to the idea that slowing down to pay full attention—let alone sitting silently and observing their breath—will actually improve their effectiveness. They may interpret reducing their emotional reactivity as squelching their passion. And they may see the idea of unbiased acceptance as being equivalent to passivity. These are common misconceptions, and they are likely to be in full force among a group of hipos.
In addition to repositioning mindfulness training content, additional content should be added to provide guidance for developing mindfulness in the workplace and for applying mindfulness to central leadership challenges. Useful additions could include identifying and committing to personal values and priorities (Hayes, Strosdahl, & Wilson, 1999), which can serve as trusted guides for behavior once one’s ego has quieted and one’s biases and distractions are corralled. Also, exercises could focus on skills such as speaking and presenting mindfully, building relationships, and having challenging discussions with directness and empathy.

The second challenge is format. Based on the design of MBSR, most mindfulness training programs take place in weekly in-person meetings of 2 hours each over the course of 8 weeks. Such a schedule may be difficult to maintain for a group of high potentials, especially in a geographically distributed organization. Other formats need to be explored, such as virtual participation or even asynchronous participation for certain elements. Web-based resources and mobile technologies offer new opportunities to push the boundaries of mindfulness training and to help hipos more fully incorporate mindfulness into their daily lives.

The third challenge is more fundamental: It is the need for patience. Developing mindfulness is more similar to beginning an exercise program than to learning a management skill. Although some level of mindfulness can be evoked in as little as 5 minutes (Heppner et al., 2007), the development of a deep, impactful level of mindfulness can take months. This is antithetical to our current culture of instant gratification. All parties involved—hipos, their managers, and talent management staff—need to keep this in mind and find both the patience and the persistence that it takes to truly leverage the power of this unique tool for leadership development.

The application of mindfulness training in the workplace offers an entirely new approach to leadership development. It holds that employees have the potential to be more effective in their jobs not by learning from experts, not by accessing new technologies, but by bringing forth an innate capability for being fully present in the moment and thereby reconfiguring the way they perceive themselves and the world. Research to date suggests that this approach holds great promise for helping organizations to develop their high potential managers into capable and effective leaders.

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