High Potentials Are Still Your Best Bet

By Morris, Gail Johnson; Rogers, Kim | T&D, February 2013 | Go to article overview
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High Potentials Are Still Your Best Bet


Morris, Gail Johnson, Rogers, Kim, T&D


The odds are that these research results will help you develop a world-class development program for high-potential leaders.

In a resource-constrained world, many organizations have chosen to bet all their chips on high-potential leaders (HiPos), but the gamble appears to have paid lackluster returns. After a decade of investment, we are now seeing articles defending the "B player." Were organizations misguided in this key investment?

PricewaterhouseCooper's 2012 survey of CEOs from around the world shows that more than half of CEOs are concerned about their ability to access talent with the specialized skills their companies need. And according to "How to Hang On to Your High Potentials" by Claudio Fernandex-Araoz and colleagues, in the regions where many companies are focusing on growth strategies, the supply of experienced managers is most limited and the shortage is expected to continue for another two decades.

Focusing on the development and retention of HiPos continues to be a strategic imperative for organizations. To help determine where the investment in their development has gone wrong, we went directly to the source, and spoke with HiPos themselves, as well as the chief talent officers (CTOs) in charge of these programs.

Our goal was to identify the key elements of a world-class HiPo development program. We conducted qualitative and quantitative research with 45 HiPos and eight CTOs. We tested and ranked a series of HiPo program benchmarks and the HiPos scored a proposed straw-model program. The surprising research results highlight where organizations have been missing the mark--both by investing in ineffective activities and failing to invest in those that reap the most benefits.

Through our research, we identified five key strategies that can significantly increase the return on high-potential investment. We also have outlined how organizations can assess their readiness to implement these strategies.

Defining high potential

Most organizations have an internal process for identifying high-potential leaders. In our sample, half of the CTOs use a potential-performance nine-box grid as their method to identify candidates for their HiPo pool (see figure on page 62). Using this nine-box performance gauge for large groups of employees helps select employees with both high potential and high performance.

Although the specifics can vary, most definitions will look beyond succession by specifying both the necessary characteristics and abilities to be promoted more than one level up. Knightsbridge's definition that we used for the purposes of our study is: "Individuals who, with targeted development, have the motivation, capacity, and learning agility necessary to advance multiple leadership levels at a rapid rate."

Program elements

After we analyzed the interview feedback and benchmarks, five program elements were identified as critical in a world-class HiPo program that will create true and meaningful skill development and ultimately result in leaders who are ready to take on more complex leadership roles.

If you are launching a HiPo program, start with the first three and add the others once your program is up and running. If you have a program already in place, consider whether you have all the winning elements as part of your program. Select the right HiPos. Select the candidates with the right mix of performance, aspiration, and engagement. They must be able to demonstrate consistent high performance (at their current level as well as show the potential to perform two levels beyond), and work equally well with ambiguity, fast-paced change, and a diverse range of stakeholders.

There are three components to building a targeted HiPo selection process.

* The executive team should make the decision together regarding the criteria for who is considered a HiPo. Then use a structured process for the leadership team to review all the candidates against these criteria.

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