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High-Potential Talent

Global Leadership Forecast 2018

Making the Most of High-Potential Talent:

Avoiding a Mismatch Between What They Want and Get

Amy Lui Abel and Amanda Popiela

Organizations spend more money developing high potentials than any other group of leaders, including the senior team. High-potential leaders also spend more hours per year in formal leadership training than any other leadership group. Given the money and time expended, how can organizations ensure that they’re reaping benefits of cultivating these would-be high performers?

Knowing what high-potential leaders want from their development experiences can shape a company’s strategy and lead to positive outcomes. High-potential respondents to our survey were clear: They’re looking for tailored development. From a list of 10 development types, four of their top five preferences are types of learning that are tailored to their own needs. Coaching from external mentors tops the list, and short-term and long-term development assignments and coaching from current managers are also in the top five. High-potential leaders also desire formal workshops and training courses, the type of learning that’s provided most frequently by organizations.

Making the Most of High-Potential Talent

Identifying High Potentials

Strengths and weaknesses of organizations based on responses from HR professionalsMany organizations are caught in the same dilemma: how to identify high potentials, how to develop them as leaders, and when to promote them. The benefits to having them are obvious, but how can organizations maximize their contribution and keep them engaged?

Simply identifying high potentials within the organization is correlated with positive business results. Companies that know who their high potentials are have greater bench strength, and leaders who have been notified of their high-potential status are more engaged and more likely to commit energy to growth and development opportunities. Turnover is also lower among high potentials (11 percent per year) than the general leadership population (13 percent).

Many organizations are seeing this benefit. About 65 percent of companies we surveyed identify high potentials, and of those organizations, almost 60 percent inform them of their special status. While HR professionals mostly agree that their identification methods are unbiased, their evaluation methods are sound, and that their program is targeted to specific needs of this group, about a quarter of respondents disagree with each of these statements. Even more worrisome, a full 33 percent of respondents note that their organization’s process for identifying high potentials is inconsistent.

Are High Potentials Getting the Learning They Want Most?

In some cases, high potentials get the desired learning, but not often enough. Long-term developmental assignments rank as their fifth most-desired learning method, and 34 percent of them have completed at least one international assignment. Almost half have had a formal mentor. That said, 36 percent of leaders not identified as high potential also have had a formal mentor, and 24 percent of those individuals have completed an international assignment.

Considering this small difference, not much more is being done for high potentials, who strongly desire such experiences. Additionally, though coaching from external mentors tops the list of desired developmental experiences for high potentials, it ranks eighth in terms of what companies actually provide. Using books and articles is a commonly provided developmental activity, but it ranks low on the list of the types of learning high potentials want. Organizations can provide more targeted learning opportunities for high potentials by increasing coaching and developmental assignments for them.

Among several key activities to identify and manage high potential, most HR professionals agree that their organization evaluates high-potential performance, but measuring effectiveness of programming is a weakness.

Where to Start
  • Consistently identify high potentials. You can do this via clear evaluation criteria around competencies and expectations.
  • Evaluate high potentials’ success. Measure the success of high-potential development programs to ensure that offerings satisfy these leaders’ learning needs and preferences.
  • Evaluate selection and promotion processes for bias and consistency. This was an area of perceived weakness by HR leaders in our study. If it’s a concern in your organization, work with leaders to ensure that consistent, quantitative measures of leader success are applied across the organization.
How to Excel + Differentiate
  • Give high potentials the tailored learning experiences they crave. This means external coaching, short-term and special projects, or rotational-placement programs. Some experiences can be provided at low cost.
  • Provide simulations of major events or decisions. These experiences allow leaders to practice reacting to realistic scenarios. Networking events to expose high potentials to senior leaders and mentoring programs can have significant impact as well. Designing these experiences may require greater creativity and thoughtfulness than typical development programs, but they can lead to greater returns.
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