To tell, or not to tell

The identification of a group of individuals with “high potential” presents an immediate dilemma for the organization: How explicit should the organization be about its attention towards a select group?

On the one hand, talented managers generally know their worth — by not acknowledging their contributions the organization misses the opportunity to positively reinforce successful behaviours. On the other hand, too much focus on a select group risks alienating solid performers who are not chosen.

The development of a successful communications strategy depends on leadership program goals and the culture of the organization. Here are some general guidelines:

•Avoid rolling out a program with too much fanfare that builds unnecessary expectations and disappointments.

•When high potentials are identified, communicate a balanced message that acknowledges past achievements but also clarifies that they must be willing to take additional risks and perhaps make some sacrifices to succeed.

•Anticipate the kinds of questions that may be raised by individuals who are not selected, answering questions honestly and acknowledging the program considerations that may not be related to the individual.

Once a group of talented leaders is identified, the real work begins. Each of the selected leaders has likely been selected based on past performance. The challenge becomes how to prepare them for future, larger roles and responsibilities.

The development process should be grounded in a rigorous assessment of the individual leader within the context of the organization’s goals and performance culture. The assessment process should answer the following questions: How has the individual relied on strengths and managed weaknesses in a way that has yielded success to date? Given the company’s growth strategy and culture, what will be required of the individual in the future that differs from the current role? What are the implications of those future role requirements for how the individual needs to change or grow to succeed?

A challenge in assessing high potentials is that their strengths can be much more apparent than their weaknesses. High potentials are adept at managing (and sometimes masking) flaws or weaknesses. Their development needs may involve more subtle, but still critical, leadership issues such as comfort with ambiguity, openness to feedback and attention to the development of others. High potentials may receive little feedback about such attributes, and as a result, they can struggle to understand the relevance of the issues or sometimes to even acknowledge their existence.

Once development needs are identified through the assessment process, companies are in a position to target the development experiences required for the individuals to succeed in larger, more senior roles.

When identifying development experiences, companies often turn first to the next role or assignment the individual is likely to fill. Stretch assignments are powerful development experiences.

However, successful development programs must offer a more diverse array of experiences. In many companies today, where roles and levels have been eliminated, there may not be enough stretch roles to go around. Other kinds of development experiences that can offer high potentials valuable learning in their current role include: increased exposure to senior leaders and their thinking about the business strategy; a project that requires influencing and persuading individuals with disparate or unfamiliar views, such as colleagues from a different function or external customers; coaching a faltering employee to higher performance; or helping a subordinate identify their own strengths and development needs.

Today’s rapidly changing business environment offers unparalleled challenges and opportunities to businesses seeking to grow future leaders. A well-designed, well-executed development program, tailored to the needs of high potential managers, can offer companies a competitive edge by growing thoughtful, flexible leaders for the future.

Excerpted with permission from RHR International’s quarterly publication, Executive Insights. For more information visit or contact Jeff Durocher at (630) 766-7007 or [email protected]

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