What March Madness Teaches Us About Potential

There’s a Cinderella story in every organization just waiting for their “one shining moment” in your High Potential program.

21st March 2018

Breanne Harris

Country Manager, USA

There’s something magical about March Madness.

Statisticians, gamblers, fair-weather alumni, and life-long fans alike gather together to pour over their brackets and make performance predictions for college basketball’s top 64 teams. Whether you’re well-versed in the over/under and point-spread or just choosing teams based on their mascots, in March, we’re all Bracketologists.

Any good Bracketolgist knows that to win the office pool, they’ll need to select a few underdogs for a well-rounded bracket. Over 34% of the time, a 12-seed beats a 5-seed and 5% of the time, a 15-seed will beat a 2-seed.

But in 2018 the unthinkable happened: For the first time in NCAA Men’s basketball tournament history, a 16-seed beat the overall #1 team. Even though Virginia was favored by over 20 points, they lost in the first round to the UMBC Retrievers by 20 points.


Who is UMBC anyway?

With this historic upset, brackets were busted and everyone was asking the same questions “who is UMBC?” and “how did a 16-seed beat the overall #1 team?” As a basketball program, the University of Maryland- Baltimore County has only competed in the NCAA tournament twice. And while Virginia has never won a Championship, they have appeared in the NCAA tournament an impressive 21 times. Virginia was able to secure the #1 seed with solid performances throughout the season and a win-loss record of 31-3. UMBC, on the other hand, held a 25-11 record and barely made the field of 64 teams. In a comparison of season performance alone, Virginia should have won by a large margin.


Performance isn’t everything

The  Virginia Cavaliers, UNC Tarheels, Cincinnati Bearcats, and Xavier Musketeers were all high performers all season long, but they’ll be watching the final rounds of the NCAA tournament from home. Performance matters. Performance is what gets attention. But performance isn’t everything.

A team like UMBC, or 2013’s Florida Gulf Coast, or 2011’s VCU should remind us that there’s more to Potential than a win-loss record. Just like the 20% of Americans who picked Virginia to win it all, we’re often blinded by past performance in our organization as we look for High Potentials. Even though every respected model of potential includes key attributes such as drive, initiative, and adaptability, we often overly rely on the easiest metric to obtain- past performance. The star performers get recognized and promoted while the diamonds in the rough are overlooked. Yet, a High Potential with learning agility, stress-tolerance, a drive to succeed, and the foundational skills necessary for success can outperform the Top Performer any day.

Because few organizations define what attributes and competencies are hallmarks of Potential in their organization, the High Performers get the most attention. However, only 1 in 7 high performers are also High Potential. Because it is difficult for managers to identify the less-obvious attributes of Potential, it’s critical that organizations formally define and assess for the traits that are more difficult to observe early and often.


Look beyond the field of 64

Even in organizations that formally measure Potential for selection of individuals into a High Potential program, they often fail to cast a wide enough net. Going back to our March Madness analogy, UMBC was the 63rd selection out of 64 teams. And on one day, they out-performed the overall #1 seed. That must make you wonder about the potential talent of the 65th and 66th teams that never had the opportunity to compete on the National stage. If the only individuals getting a bid to be assessed for Potential, some top talent is most certainly being overlooked.

A more radical, yet trending approach is to allow all employees the opportunity to be assessed for Potential. When this approach is adopted, the impact on the culture is dramatic. Suddenly, employees feel as though the playing field has been leveled. One tough year of average performance doesn’t disqualify them for the HiPo opportunity. Additionally, the Similarity Effect has been mitigated and a more diverse talent pool emerges. Candidates who were unfairly screened out for reasons that could have been development opportunities are now the new diamonds-in-the-rough ready to be polished. Finally, the Emergent HiPo candidates (the ones with the loudest voices) are no longer the only recipients of development resources.


New year, new bracket

An interesting phenomenon emerges among people who don’t follow college basketball throughout the year. Without knowing the strengths and weaknesses of individual players or teams, they tend to select names that they believe are “basketball schools.” Names like Kentucky, UNC, Duke, UCLA, Kansas, and Indiana ring a bell to “March basketball fans” because they remember those names emerging to the final games in the past. Sometimes reputations outlive their application.

Intermittent sports fans were likely surprised to see big names like Indiana and UCLA missing from this year’s bracket. If the NCAA operated like most organizations, those teams would have made it to the tournament anyway, because we often over-emphasize historical performance/potential over the current state. In a previous blog post, Adam Vassar explained that after we identify an individual with Potential, we must ask “Potential for what?” This includes the practical and contextual factors that play a role in current and future organizational fit. A high performer who is identified as accurately having the necessary skills and attributes for High Potential may not be ready to consider a promotion. Perhaps they are unwilling to move to the corporate headquarters or they are caring for an ailing parent and lack the interest/energy in pursuing a new role presently.

It is important to reassess whether someone is truly deserving of the attention and developmental resources available in the High Potential program frequently. This ensures the individuals involved are engaged, committed, and are likely to fill performance-critical roles in the future. Given the large investment in these individuals, and the fact that 55% of High Potentials plan to leave the organization within 5 years, reassessing for fit can reduce the risk of turnover.


The Final Round

As we begin Round 3 of the NCAA Tournament, take some time to think about your employees’ championship readiness. Have you selected the right players for your All-Star team? Do you have the bench strength to persevere through organizational/economic challenges? Who is the hidden talent just waiting for their “one shining moment” Cinderella story?

Check out our potential assessment solutions, or contact us for a discussion about your Potential ambitions. 


About the author

Breanne Harris is a talent assessment expert with a background in Industrial‐Organizational Psychology and 12 years of experience consulting with organizations on assessment and training solutions. As the Country Manager of Cubiks US, Breanne supports organizations by leveraging the Cubiks assessment portfolio for candidate selection and leadership development. She lives in Kansas City with her husband, two young daughters and two dogs.

Connect with Breanne on LinkedIn.

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