Developing a Hi-Po strategy in a rapidly growing bio-tech firm

Invitae’s head of talent development was tasked with designing a high-potential strategy from scratch. Here’s how she did it.

I have been asked to design a high-potential strategy and develop programming to help identify, develop, engage and retain Invitae’s top talent. Invitae’s mission is to bring comprehensive genetic information into mainstream medical practice to improve healthcare for billions of people around the world.

With its approximately 2,700 team members, Invitae continues to innovate at scale, growing rapidly as it blends organizational cultures as a result of mergers and acquisitions, while maintaining aspects of its unique mission-driven culture.

Critical aspects of the culture include an upside-down organizational chart, where the CEO and executive team are at the bottom of the organizational structure, illustrating its concept of servant leadership and supporting teams and teammates who remain at the top of the organizational structure.

There are no official job titles internally and it is a relatively flat structure to enable nimble decision making and swift execution. Radically honest communication, one of the core cultural tenets, is supported by the feedback-rich environment and the internal talent analytics and business intelligence tools at its disposal.

The strategy aims to provide our top talent with: (1) intentional, focused, impactful and accelerated development and (2) growth opportunities that align with their aspirations and Invitae’s mission.

Strategy development

In the summer of 2020, I facilitated two sources of information-gathering: a conversation with the CEO and the Employee Value Proposition (EVP) Roundtables.

In July, I met with our CEO to learn of his vision for talent development in the organization. I recommended that he and the executive team develop a set of leadership principles that would set direction for how we identify and develop our top talent going forward.

These principles were first introduced at our pilot Leading@Invitae New Leader Development program in January 2021. The leadership team has since embraced socializing the importance of these principles and have echoed this sentiment, cascading their commitment throughout the organization.

The EVP Roundtables, held in August and September, were small-group discussions with high-performing employees. Positioned as an internal employer branding initiative, participants shared what is important to them and what keeps them at Invitae. An employee-centered approach, the roundtables focused on unearthing the set of offerings Invitae provides in exchange for the skills, capabilities and experiences an employee brings – our “secret sauce,” if you will. The key finding was that Invitae attracted the best and brightest and the company’s mission brought them to work with each other each day.

The plan is to align the high potential identification and development strategy with the new leadership principles and to also align it with the EVP findings around talent retention.

Identifying high potential

Our initial starting point was to define and identify what high potential (Hi-Po) looks like at Invitae. To do so, we used our internal talent analytics and business intelligence tools to review talent data from the past two years to find trends and patterns to identify traits of a high potential teammate. We also surveyed senior leadership and asked them to assess potential on their team.

These assessments were based on a teammate’s current and past demonstration of outstanding performance when presented with new circumstances and challenges. We considered the following about the individual’s current abilities:

  • How do they get work done?
    • Do they perceive possibilities, grasp complex concepts and their implications and consequences? Do they have an ability to simplify the highly complex?
    • Do they have the drive or motivation to make improvements or exceed standards and expectations?
    • Do they have the organizational and time-management skills to succeed in a significantly broader role?
  • How do they lead or influence others positively?
    • The way one strategizes how they will influence others indirectly reflects a level of empathy and organizational “know-how,” both of which are strong predictors of leadership potential.

Based on these assessments, a high potential teammate was defined as:

One who indicates an ability to assume exceptional increase in scope, complexity, responsibility, impact and scale. An individual who demonstrates versatility and flexibility to assume any number of roles in the organization/team, including cross-functional roles. One who meets or exceeds performance expectations and delivers superior results and has exceptional leadership skills, effectively demonstrating an aptitude/strength in several of Invitae’s Leadership Principles. An individual who is ready to assume more responsibility and take advantage of development opportunities.

We will be doing a soft launch of this definition, introducing the concept in our performance calibration discussions with leaders, in supporting them in assessing talent on their teams and in our development planning across the organization. The formal launch is expected early in the new year.

Developing high potential

In my research, I found if people with potential are given the opportunity to engage in strategically relevant experiences and something is done to ensure they learn the lessons of those experiences, it increases the probability of the organization having the future talent needed to lead the business strategy.

With this in mind, I have designed what the leadership principles look like in action, i.e. behaviors of success, what “good” looks like, as well as what those leadership principles look like in the form of experience-driven development, such as stretch and developmental assignments.

When designing the framework for experience-driven development for high potentials, I learned the following key lessons:

  • It is critical to understand from the start the desired outcome and the required commitments to get there. What are the goals and objectives of the developmental assignment?
  • Hi-Po talent usually take on these assignments to stretch their capabilities and accelerate their learning. Ideally, they are supported by coaching, mentoring or other structured learning to help them succeed in their stretch assignments.
  • When deciding on the appropriate development assignment, consider the type of experiences the teammate has had the least exposure.
  • What roles and projects are best suited for stretch assignments? Which are not?
    • Identify the right roles/tasks that will ensure the individual can achieve the overall objectives of the development assignment.
    • Scan across the team, function and broader organization for roles or projects that can offer the right level of exposure, experience, learning and support.
  • What support will be put in place for the assignment’s success?
    • Identify and commit to strategies that will support learning from the assignment ( i.e. maintaining a learning journal, building relationships with those who have had similar assignments, conduct additional research etc.)
    • What type of support will be provided? Feedback givers, mentors, advocates, etc.

Although much of what has been developed is internally based, we will also partner with external experts and providers of talent and leadership potential assessments. We will use these to ensure our internally developed programs are validated against benchmarked best practices. This will be much of the focus for our team in 2022.