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Can your high potential leaders handle the pressure of a new position?

Can your high potential leaders handle the pressure of a new position? Are you doing everything possible to set them up for success? Jon Theuerkauf, a Chicago-based executive, offers a vivid example of what can happen when an individual has not been prepared properly to manage the pressure that’s unique to high potentials.

Jon was working with a leading national wireless provider in Chicago. Having been successful in a number of roles, he was transferred to Atlanta to work on a special project that focused on improving customer service. At the time, his organization was going through huge growth and its customer service was not keeping up with the company’s rapid expansion. The less-than-stellar customer service was negatively impacting the company’s reputation with its customers. So Jon was brought in to help devise a solution. He had spent only one week in Atlanta when his boss asked to speak with him about his approach. After such a short time looking into the problem, Jon didn’t really have a good sense yet of what was going on. But he agreed to the briefing.

Jon showed up at the briefing with his ideas scribbled on a yellow pad of paper. At the appointed time, Jon’s boss walked in with his own boss, the chief administrative officer (CAO). They asked Jon to present to them, in slides, what his thoughts were about the current situation and the solution moving forward. Jon was completely flustered. He did not have his ideas prepared on slides. Nor was he sure yet what the fix for customer service should be. Jon hurriedly blurted out some ideas for the two men. As you can imagine, it all went horribly wrong. Jon lacked insight into what the problem was and what the fix might be. He felt the pressure of the situation and was frozen — he found he could not think straight or answer even the simplest questions in a thoughtful way. “My mind was in complete overload. . . . They wanted a full concept, not just a conversation. I knew five minutes in I was dead.” Jon’s boss and the CAO thought Jon’s presentation was dreadful, and they lost confidence that he was up to the task. As a result, he was immediately relieved of his new position, which was a crushing blow. His demotion kept him up at night for weeks, ruminating about what went wrong, and he eventually left the organization altogether.

What went wrong for Jon can go wrong for countless other high potentials who aren’t prepared properly for pressure. They can succumb to pressure, fail to deliver in an important moment and compromise their most valuable asset in the organization: their reputation.

Interestingly, to the outsider (and this is where we all get it wrong), what is observed is a completely different picture: a seemingly confident woman or man on a perfect career trajectory who seems to be impervious to the pressure of their new job.

If it were only true.

The training and performance experts at the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP) conducted a study on over 12,000 managers and leaders who face significant pressure, and found that:

  1. All high potential leaders feel a potent mixture of doubt, fear and pressure when they get moved up to a new position.
  2. Most use a haphazard approach to managing pressure. They don’t use best practices to manage their pressure better. And they don’t apply what the best of neuroscience or sports science has to offer. Instead, they use what they learned from their parents, teachers, coaches and other leaders. This might serve them, often it does not.

Jon used a haphazard approach because he had never been taught how to manage pressure correctly. For Jon – and other high potentials – this is dangerous because of the unique pressure that all high potentials face: the pressure of high expectation, a distinctive social pressure.

When Jon and others are selected to be ‘on the list’, they are explicitly and implicitly expected by the organization and their peers to be the best of the best. The expectation is that they’ll grow quickly and be successful at every stage of their journey through the organization. On top of this, they feel like live in fishbowl (and in some ways do) where the higher in the organization they move, the greater the magnification.

The problem with this scenario is that when they hit a rough patch, which is inevitable, they become more sensitive to letting people down because of the high expectations placed on them. This stimulates intense feelings of social pain, the pain we experience when social relationships are damaged or lost. This pain is very real. Pioneering research by Matthew Lieberman at UCLA using neuroimaging studies shows that social pain and physical pain share the same underlying processing system in the brain. When you break an arm, you experience the same type of pain, neurologically, as when you feel the loss of a loved one.

The consequence of this acute social pain for high potentials is that it can cause them to stop taking risks in their environment. For instance, they become afraid to say ‘No’, which is precisely what Jon should have done.

Recollecting the story years later, Jon realized his mistake. He was not ready for the meeting, but did not say so. He did not stop the meeting five minutes in when it was clear to him that it would be a waste of time. Looking back, Jon realizes why. He was 31 years old at the time, and this was his first foray into the “C” suite. He felt like he would be harshly judged if he said he was not ready. He felt like he would be letting his boss down in front of his boss’s boss.  He didn’t even have the wherewithal to ask the executives what they thought the big issues were. The pressure of being worried about their perceptions of his performance was overwhelming.

The effect of being more sensitive to what people think of them is that the high potentials, ironically, stop learning. They become so worried about not succeeding, not meeting expectations, that they start to play it safe and stop taking the necessary risks to grow and learn. As a result, their career starts to stall. Unfortunately, most high potentials are not being taught to manage the unique pressure they face and end up taking a haphazard approach.

IHHP conducted a survey of high potentials programs among Fortune 500’s, and found very few offered training and development in the science of pressure. Most high potential programs fall into the trap of teaching, training, and mentoring their people to be better managers and leaders. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is far too limited to truly develop them for a world that is becoming more pressure-filled. Additionally, the business environment is changing at such a pace that it will look very different in five and 10 years than it does now, and that rapid evolution brings its own set of pressures.

If Jon had been taught how to manage pressure, he might have realized earlier that he was in over his head, stopped (or postponed) the meeting and saved himself a great deal of anguish and, ultimately, his career at that company.

How do you help your high potentials? Challenge them to become ‘students of human behavior’. In Performing Under Pressure, there are 22 pressure solutions, all designed to help individuals manage pressure so that they can perform and be aggressive learners. One of the most important solutions? Train your high potentials to see pressure less as a crisis or a threat and more of a challenge or an opportunity to grow. This simple technique changes an individual’s brain and helps take the risk necessary to develop their potential.

Of course, all was not lost as Jon eventually got over the agony of that moment and went on to a highly successful career as an executive elsewhere. Interestingly, the first thing he did when he got into a position of influence is institute a program for his high potentials to learn how to manage pressure more effectively.


Dr. JP Pawliw-Fry, an internationally renowned expert, trainer, and speaker at the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP), is one of the world’s most highly respected resources on pressure and performance. His New York Times Best Selling book, Performing Under Pressure (co-written with Hendrie Weissinger), provides actionable “pressure solutions” that maximize success during pressure situations, as well as real-world examples from his clients, including corporate executives, Olympic athletes, and Navy SEALS. He also offers in-depth, science-based research about pressure’s impact on the brain and, ultimately, our performance.

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Featured Columnists at the CEOWORLD Magazine is a team of experts led by Camilla O'Donnell, James Reed, Amarendra Bhushan, and Amanda Millar. The CEOWORLD Magazine is the worlds leading business and technology magazine for CEOs (chief executives) and top-level management professionals.
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