John Hendrickson’s recent Cambria white paper, Exceptional Talent: A Different Type of High Potential, describes the qualities of unique individuals whose outsized contributions make them extremely valuable in the workplace, yet at the same time make them difficult to identify and manage.

Many of the people who fit into this category are hard to integrate into organizational life. The most prominent examples are the entrepreneurs and innovators who never finished college but went on to start their own companies or join in with other like-minded individuals to follow a different path to disrupt existing markets and create breakthrough innovations.

Companies with such exceptionally talented people, or those that hope to hire and nurture them, should note that not every organization can provide a suitable environment where exceptional talent can thrive.

Nevertheless, there are important characteristics to look for that distinguish exceptional talent from the usual high potential employee:

  • Preternaturally bright. In terms of solving problems and demonstrating insights that others aren’t able to do, exceptionally talented individuals clearly outpace their peers in the ability to absorb huge amounts of information and make connections that escape others’ understanding. Along with this comes extraordinary memory for facts and details, often accompanied by the ability to think visually and spatially.
  • Hyper-competitive. While most people identified as high potentials early in their careers are competitive with their peers and career-motivated, exceptionally talented people are more competitive with their own “personal best”, pushing the bounds of their own past accomplishments. They’re less focused on what others are doing than on what they can do differently or much better than before.
  • Energized by challenge. This is a common characteristic of most high-potential employees, for whom no challenge is too scary. However, we’ve learned that if there is one thing that energizes exceptionally talented people more than anything else, it’s being given a problem that no one else has been able to solve and telling them it’s unlikely that they will succeed. Their thought-balloon: “Oh yeah? I’ll show you!”
  • Extraordinarily Persistent. Knowing when to quit is usually the mark of good judgment. Among exceptionally talented individuals, however, it is tantamount to throwing in the towel. These folks are persistent to the point of obsession in their push to break the back of an all-consuming problem, dedicating enormous amounts of energy and focus on the goal at hand.

Clearly this category of people doesn’t fit the high-potential mold as defined by the 9-box (3×3) talent matrix, with performance on one axis and potential on the other. It isn’t that they aren’t outstanding performers (the ticket to entering the pool), but it’s implicit in how “potential for advancement” is defined – usually based on a judgment that a person can be promoted one or two levels above their current role. (What goes into this assessment, beyond track record of past performance, is anyone’s guess.)

The bias inherent in these judgements favors high-potentials with traditional managerial and leadership skills. The reason that most exceptionally talented individuals don’t make this cut is that they are constitutionally not people managers, nor do they aspire to be.

If we were to redefine what it means to be a high potential employee in terms that an exceptionally talented person would understand, here are some indications that put them on a parallel track:

  • They are leaders by virtue of their expert status. The respect they command is due to their complete mastery of their domain. As sticklers for detail and perfection, they have difficulty delegating and are not naturally team players. Nevertheless, others follow them because of what they can learn from watching and working with them.
  • They are pace-setters, not coaches. This is no surprise, given the distinguishing characteristics listed above. If they develop people, it is through osmosis, rarely through hands-on development or mentoring. Occasionally, such a person might spot an equally exceptionally talented individual to take under one’s wing, but as these people are rare, most spend their time on novel and challenging tasks rather than developing their successors.
  • Emotional intelligence is not their strong suit. Empathy gets in the way of their own agenda. It’s not that they are unfeeling, but they are often unaware of how they come across to others, or don’t really think much about it. Most could benefit from greater self-awareness, lest they torpedo their own careers inside the organization by inadvertently (or even deliberately) being too difficult to work with.

If you’re still wondering how to create a nurturing habitat for exceptionally talented individuals – as distinct from the “A-players” that every organization tries to hire – here is how to think about attracting and retaining them:

  • Keep them energized and challenged. This means making sure that enough new challenges and learning opportunities are in the mix to keep them motivated and engaged. More than this, though, be sensitive to signs that their inner barometers aren’t signaling that they have gotten as much out of their roles as they can and it’s time for a new and bigger challenge elsewhere.
  • Recognize and reward their unique contributions. Exceptionally talented individuals are exceedingly self-motivated and know when they have been successful. That doesn’t mean that they don’t crave recognition and praise. As a different category of talent, they want to know whether they are valued and how they fit into the overall contribution equation, even though the metrics going into that equation are different.
  • Redefine what it means to be high potential. Many prominent companies, most notably technology, engineering, and science-driven, have designated people as “fellows” in recognition of their extraordinary technical or visionary leadership. This denotes a different path to the top of the “9-box” and is really a parallel talent universe. For organizations that need such individuals guiding innovation and next-generation thinking, hiring, supporting, and growing these individuals is a strategic imperative.