How to Develop a Pipeline of High Potentials

Jul 6, 2015
8 Min Read

Confucius once said that the “will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential…these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.” What Confucius failed to reveal, however, is how organizations can not only find the people who feel this way, but hang onto them.

Keeping star talent is on ongoing issue for many organizations, but more employers are now realizing that the issue goes much deeper. In order to remain globally competitive, they must learn to identify high potentials earlier, develop them effectively and then successfully move them into the senior leadership pipeline.

In a recent Right Management study on high potential talent, only 13% of senior executives and human capital managers today believe their organizations have ample leadership pipelines, making it clear that more needs to be done.

The problem, the study finds, is that many organizations stumble into common pitfalls when it comes to managing high potential programs, such as confusing high performance with potential. Research shows, for example, that only about 20% of high performing managers are correctly considered to have high potential for advancement. Employers may also use outdated success profiles, not considering whether they’re still valid or relevant. Finally, many organizations don’t create a credible and trustworthy development program, the study finds.

So how can companies best develop an effective high potential development program?

Margaret-Ann Cole, senior vice president at Right Management, says that the first step must be a talent assessment for an entire organization that looks for those who have specific qualities such as agile and strategic thinking, as well as desire and aspiration.

“You really have to look at someone who is agile strategically and operationally and business-wise,” she says. “You don’t want what one HR person calls ‘incompetent dreamers.’”

The study points out that too many companies make the mistake of using high-potential development programs as a retention tool or as a reward for past performance. Or, an employee might be sent to a high potential program to avoid confronting performance problems, the study notes.

“Lack of established criteria and the absence of gatekeepers with the authority to reject nominees lead to high potential programs that are a grab-bag of employees, many of whom are there for the wrong reasons,” the study finds.

Cole says that not only does an employer need to consider what the organization needs in future leaders, but also the “strengths and gaps” high potentials may possess. While the company may need certain things in future leaders such as an ability to think globally, high potential development plans must also be customized for each individual, she advises.

For example, a top salesperson identified as a high potential may be advised to start having more strategic client conversations, which is a way to increase sales and also develop those individual skills the company needs for future leaders, Cole says.

Experience matters

High potentials are those who can move at least two levels in the organization within two to three years, and the report notes that one of the best things for these employees is to give them learning experiences outside their comfort zone. That doesn’t mean, Cole stresses, that high potentials are thrown into completely new situations to see if they sink or swim.

“If you have someone who is fantastic in sales, but has never run operations, then you give them more profit and loss development with the thought of one day moving them into the general manager role,” she says. “What you want to do is consider where is this person’s skill lacking?”

Further, in order to avoid a high potential becoming discouraged or disengaged when learning new skills, Cole recommends that such employees be allowed to continue doing what they do best – but letting them try something new at the same time.

The report notes that experience-based activities for high potentials can include business simulation and challenge labs, where participants have the opportunity to make decisions, take initiative so they can learn from their action and be held accountable for the results, which “includes failure.”

“By the way,” the report says, “failure does not mean punishment. True high potentials don’t take setbacks lying down, and they are quick to examine what they did right and wrong, and draw important lessons from failure. Typically, more is learned from failure (and re-examination) than from success.”

Cole adds that another critical element to developing and retaining high potential comes from the buy-in and active support of senior leaders.

“Senior leaders are good at what they do and they understand the (organization’s) culture,” Cole says. “They serve as role models.”

The report says that input from key executive stakeholders is critical in order to deliver the results the business needs.

“This requires a concerted effort and a series of meaningful conversations, both one on one and in groups, focused squarely on the needs of the business, rather than starting with a discussion about competencies. In short, this needs to be executive alignment activity first and foremost,” the report finds.

As Cole notes, the key to high potential development is emphasizing that continual learning is the key to successful organizations and careers and the survival of both.

“Individuals must learn is that with globalization and technology, things will always be changing. They must understand that they’ve got to always be able to adapt and constantly learn,” she says.

Or, as Confucius noted, “I hear, I know. I see, I remember. I do, I understand.”

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