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Mitchell Johnson – the anatomy and traits of a high-potential individual

December 30, 2013

Back in 2001 a relatively unknown 19-year-old Australian left-arm fast bowler Mitchell Johnson burst onto the scene, described by the legendary Dennis Lillee as a once-in-a-lifetime prospect – after seeing him bowl only three balls.

He may have taken a longer and more roundabout route than expected, but at the age of 32 it finally looks as if he is living up to the early predictions. He has blown England away in the current Ashes Test Series producing one of the greatest fast-bowling performances in recent times in Adelaide.

Now reviving his career in spectacular fashion as England’s nemesis, despite the tattoos, the moustache and the sledging that have been added in the interim, he still seems a humble, genuine guy.

In the 2009 Ashes series, his career hit an all-time low, leaking runs and suffering a barrage of abuse from The Barmy Army, he was written off as mentally fragile and seemed a long way from the high potential young bowler at the start of the decade. It looked like he might never play Test Match cricket again.

Johnson lost his way. There was no more frustrating sight in cricket than watching him sling fastballs that couldn’t hit an elephant standing at the other end of the wicket – with or without a bat. He’d promised so much and delivered so little, and that’s the way it could have ended, with the selectors tired of his mercurial displays, would he ever realise his potential?

Who suspected Johnson had it in him to change? Failure is a strengthening experience only for those strong enough to be strengthened by it. Who thought Johnson was strong enough? Who looked past the slumped shoulders, the hang-dog look and vacant stare in his eyes, and saw a plausible possibility of the realisation of his high potential in winter 2013? What did he do to change?

I can’t speak of the no doubt countless sessions with coaches working on the technical aspects of his game – the straightening of his run-up, the higher arm action, the biomechanical minutiae of ball delivery and release. But what he first must have done is eaten his share of humble pie and worked his socks off.

There is something uplifting about watching a man who has been cast down rise again, something beautifully redemptive in a story like Johnson’s. He is the main but not only difference between summer and winter 2013 Ashes. In the current series, his record is:

– First Test 9-103

– Second Test 8-113

– Third Test 6-140

– Fourth Test 8-88

He now stands eighth in the Australian all-time wicket takers with 236 test wickets. He has terrified England. England’s first innings in the First Test was already in a shambolic state when Johnson entered the arena after lunch on the third day, taking 5 for 12 in 18 balls. He bowled like the wind and instilled fear into the hearts and minds of the English batsmen.

Some people are more talented than others, that’s a fact of life, but the more debatable point is how to treat people like Johnson who appear to have the highest potential, a special talent. What do you do in your organisation with the ‘high potentials’, do you give them special treatment?

Opponents of special treatment argue that all employees are talented in some way and all should receive equal opportunities for growth. Devoting a disproportionate amount of energy and resources to a select few, the thinking goes, might cause you to overlook the potential contributions of the many. After all, why dampen motivation among the 95% of employees who aren’t on the list?

Douglas Ready, visiting professor of organizational behaviour at London Business School has undertaken research on high-potential people, showing that the top 3% to 5% of talent can be defined as ‘high potential’. High potentials always deliver strong results, master new types of expertise, and recognise that their behaviour counts, but it’s the intangible factors that truly distinguish them from the pack, with the following anatomy and traits:

1. A drive to excel High potentials aren’t just high achievers, they are driven to succeed. Good, even very good, isn’t good enough, they are more than willing to go that extra mile and realise they may have to make sacrifices in order to advance. That doesn’t mean they aren’t true to their values, but sheer ambition may lead them to make some pretty hard choices.

2. A catalytic learning capability We often think of high potentials as relentless learners, but a lot of people learn continually yet lack an action or results orientation. The high potentials identified by Ready possess what he calls a catalytic learning capability. They have the capacity to scan for new ideas, the cognitive capability to absorb them, and the common sense to translate new learning into productive action.

3. An enterprising spirit High potentials are always searching for productive ways to blaze new paths, they are explorers and as such take on the challenges of leaving their comfort zones in order to advance. Given high potentials’ drive to succeed, you might think they’d be reluctant to take such a chance, but most seem to find that the advantages – the excitement and opportunity – outweigh the risks.

4. Dynamic sensors However, successful high potentials have a well-tuned radar that puts a higher premium on quality results. Beyond judgment, high potentials possess a feel for timing, an ability to quickly read situations, and a nose for opportunity. High potentials have a knack for being in the right place at the right time, they are anticipatory.

5. Capacity to collaborate Though high potentials are personally driven, they also enjoy working closely with others in order to harness their own talents for the team. This attitude goes beyond amiability, it’s a pragmatic, tactical intuitive awareness. High potentials tend to be good listeners too.

6. They have guts and show initiative High potentials don’t wait to be told want to do, they look for opportunities and assume responsibility above and beyond the call of duty. Personality traits include resilience, curiosity and flexibility. To individuals with the never enough mentality, clarity results from hard work and finely tuned instincts.

7. They are willing to endure hardship Work isn’t always easy, there are times when a customer is grinding away, and they need someone to stay late to render assistance. High potentials make self-sacrifices at that moment, they don’t walk away. The never enough mentality delivers focus and charisma to generate a buzz and goodwill that reverberates with customers.

8. They only say no when they absolutely have to No is a definitive word, once it has been spoken, there is very little wiggle room. It is, therefore, a word that should be used sparingly. High potentials always look for a solution – Let me see what I can do or Let me look into that. Those and similar phrases set high potentials apart. They forge ahead with positive attitudes, both in good times and with determination in adversity.

9. They share the credit for successes and take responsibility for shortcomings When something is done well, it usually isn’t difficult to determine why, but self-congratulations are tedious and unnecessary to high potentials, whose natural instinct is to share credit with others. Conversely, no one likes a martyr, but there are times when stepping up to take responsibility when something goes wrong goes a long way.

10. A knack for seeing the bigger picture. Employees with high potential tend to be engaged at all times and show an interest in learning beyond the immediate scope of their role. They are curious about the organisations’ goals and wish to help in achieving those outcomes. In their mind, they see their own success as being directly tied to the success of the organisation.

As the future leaders of their organisations, high-potential employees should be identified early and developed effectively. By building their future leadership skills and competencies, organisations can create a competitive advantage for the future, but with minimal resources and self-constrained budgets, how do we identify and then cultivate those high-potential employees?

High-potential employees embody passion and are characterized by a quick movement through various roles in a company. Ideally, these top performers are identified as early as possible and benefit from personal development plans that ensure those that are the best and brightest quickly rise to the top.

The demand for these leaders of tomorrow is rapidly outgrowing the supply. As a result, organisations are actively focused on identifying and cultivating those employees with the greatest potential to grow into business-critical roles.

Unfortunately, surprisingly few organisations are doing this effectively. A recent survey found that 75% of companies are not confident in their ability to identify high-potentials. In contrast, companies that identify and develop high-potential employees show dramatic shareholder returns.

Thus, to achieve consistent measurable success, an organisation must enforce an effective and sustained identification and development process that focuses on the desired traits and abilities of high-potential employees, as outlined above.

In defining the criteria for selecting high-potential employees, many organisations link their talent to current job performance, rather than using an inventory of ideal attributes. This method is effective but should be coupled with clear criteria that evaluate and measure future potential.

This hybrid approach should not only increase the quality of the candidates, but also provide a road map for success as they progress. Moreover, by basing assessment on a combination of current and future skills, organisations will have more confidence in their high-potential employees and measure success with greater accuracy.

Mistaking a high-performing employee for a high-potential employee can be costly. If an organisation is not able to distinguish between performance and potential, it will have difficulty identifying talent.

This happens all the time. A top-performing sales rep is promoted to sales manager, and struggles to transition from killing his sales goals to helping a team of sales reps hit theirs. Meanwhile, the sales rep whose hard work has facilitated the success of sales teams for years feels undervalued, and decides it’s time to start looking for growth opportunities elsewhere. Both scenarios hurt morale and drive turnover.

High performers stand out in any organization but can be difficult to identify, for two reasons. First, high performance is so easy to observe that it drowns out the less obvious attributes and behaviours that characterise high potentials capabilities detailed earlier.

Secondly, few organisations codify the attributes and competencies they value in their ideal employees, which means that managers don’t know precisely what to look for to assess potential. As a result, most managers focus exclusively on performance, and that can be a problem.

So back to Mitchell Johnson, a man now realising his high-potential. Day two of the Fourth Ashes Test in Melbourne saw Johnson take his third five-wicket haul of the series. He took his 28th wicket of the series when he had Broad trapped lbw for seven with a full in-swinger, meaning his five wickets had come in 42 balls for the cost of just 14 runs.

His 5-63 was his tenth five-wicket haul and at the end of day two, had taken 18-37 in four devastating spells during the series. Wrapping up the second Innings, he took 3-25, now 31-434 for the series in total. With the fifth and final test to come, Johnson may cap his impressive comeback by being only the fourth Australian bowler to collect 40 or more wickets in a Test series against England in the 130 years the two combatants have gone head to head.

Johnson shows the personal anatomy and traits that characterise high-potentials, and the defining attitude that your vision of where or who you want to be is the greatest asset you have. Recall, it’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be that is the necessary mind-set – and then make it happen, even if there are a few bumps in the road along the way to success.

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