Organizations have long invested precious time and resources to identify people with leadership potential, but the most recent Global Leadership Forecast shows that despite 65 percent of companies having high-potential programs, 68 percent say they’re not very effective.
The reasons why high-potential programs are failing ties back to how we define potential and where we look for it. The traditional school of thought behind high-potential initiatives is to focus efforts on developing a select few people who are chosen for their early demonstration of leadership skills. What this “top of the house” mentality leaves out are the people below the senior-most ranks—many of whom fly under the radar and never get the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership potential.
Even though it goes against what we think is right, organizations that focus their high-potential efforts below the senior level—opening their high-potential pool to as much as 32 percent of the organization’s total leader population—tend to have more effective programs. What’s more, again according to the Global Leadership Forecast, these organizations are 4.2 times more likely to financially outperform organizations that restrict their high-potential programs to the exclusive few at the top.
While stocking the pool with more leaders is a good first step, it’s not a silver bullet for success. Change will come as the result of tweaking how your company looks at leadership potential.
Here a few ways you can transform your high-potential program into a high-performing one:
- Think about potential … “for what?” Approach potential more broadly than just planning for who will be your next CEO. Take a full-pipeline view of potential and scout for potential across the organization—not only executive-level potential but include those who exhibit talent to become first-level managers and every leadership role in between. Taking this expanded approach will help you take advantage of the full range of talent in your organization, while also creating an environment where employees feel that opportunities for growth and advancement are fair.
- Be objective about selection. Traditionally, the identification of high potentials has relied on managers’ ability to find people whom they believe have leadership potential. The problem is that too often managers make these decisions based on subjective reasoning and bias. Make objectivity king and instead use data from sound sources, such as assessments, to uncover those with high potential. When used in conjunction with a clear definition of potential, assessments can not only increase the objectivity of your high-potential decisions, but open opportunities for individuals who might otherwise go unnoticed.
- Create a learning environment that’s immersive and personalized. High-potential learning programs should be a mix of both classroom-based training and on-the-job learning, and in both instances, relevance and application is critical. Treat the classroom as an extension of the business and incorporate lots of case studies, action learning and simulations, and peer group discussions on real business challenges.
- Reframe your high-potential program to motivate, not overwhelm. A recent study looked into how high-potential leadership training should be framed in order to best provoke interest and participation. The research suggests that to motivate people to engage in leadership development, particularly those who may not have had training in the past, companies should consider framing the goal of the education as “learning leadership skills,” rather than “how to become a leader.” Framing the education as skills-based may be more motivating because the task seems reasonable and achievable for leaders at any stage in their careers, while learning to become a leader could be perceived as challenging and imply that the person is currently a poor leader.
- Make coaching a constant. Companies that use coaching show greater leadership bench strength, promote more leaders from within, and are more likely to have a pipeline of talent to fill roles immediately. Note that leaders don’t become good coaches just by having the role; they become good coaches through proactive skill development. Equip your managers of all levels with the skills and insights they need to coach high potentials, as well as other team members. Remember that early, straight feedback on strengths and growth is essential for high potentials to rapidly excel.
- Take a data-driven approach. Using data to evaluate the effectiveness of your high-potential program is not only necessary to prove ROI but tracking and monitoring program data at regular intervals can motivate growth—especially when the results consistently show high returns. When making changes to your program, it’s also helpful to prove—with data—that those changes were worth it (or not). Remember that using analytics to forecast and benchmark the impact of your program is great, but don’t forget to use analytics from the get-go to make objective decisions when selecting high potentials for your program.
Now Make it Real, Not Just a Dream
If you want a high-potential program with not just promise, but real, bottom-line performance, take a step back and think about your program in a new and different way. Think more broadly about how your organization defines potential and make a deliberate effort to consider people with a broader range of skills, mindsets, and perspectives. You’ll get more out of your high-potential program than you ever thought you would.
Learn how DDI can help you unleash hidden potential by leveraging the power of diversity and inclusion.
Tacy M. Byham, Ph.D., is DDI’s Chief Executive Officer and co-author of Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others. She is also co-author, with Fortune Magazine writer Ellen McGirt, of the forthcoming book, Amplify: Power Moves for Women & Their Allies to Ignite Change.