By Daniel Zaba & Kevin C. Ngo

We define potential as the ability to progress and perform effectively in roles of greater complexity, scale and range. But how do we help high potential individuals actualise these latent abilities? Daniel Zaba and Kevin Ngo discuss 10 key considerations in developing your talent to reach their potential.

Outline your organisation’s strategy

The purpose of strategic talent management is to ensure that the right people with the right capabilities in the right places at the right time to fulfil an organisation’s strategy. The first consideration in developing your high potentials (HiPos) is to outline a clear strategy for your organisation. Best practice organisations consider development programs in relation to how they fit into the bigger picture of business strategy (Leskiw & Singh, 2007). Being able to articulate how the development program aligns to a clear strategy will help you ensure that the initiative helps your organisation achieve its goals.

Defining capabilities for success

Despite the temptation to use an off-the-shelf program for a relatively affordable one-off cost, this will rarely result in an effective long-term solution for your organisation (Church, Rotolo, Ginther & Levine, 2015). Your organisation has unique needs; assuming that a HiPo program that works somewhere else will work in the context of your organisation ignores the strategy and culture of your business – the true drivers of the most effective HiPo programs (Fernández-Aráoz, Groysberg, & Nohria, 2011). By identifying the behaviours which lead to high performance, you can define the capabilities your HiPos need to help your organisation fulfil its strategy (Gangani, McLean, & Braden, 2006).

Diagnosing the talent gap

When we embark on the task of developing HiPos, we need to answer the question of where the critical gaps are between the capabilities in our talent pipeline and what our organisation needs in the future. Any subsequent development programs should focus on addressing these gaps so that your resources are spent where they are needed most.

Identifying your audience

Although all employees can benefit from training and development, HiPo programs should be targeted at HiPos to gain the greatest return on investment. This is especially true when we consider that research says that, at best, 29% of high performers actually have high potential (CLC, 2005) and some estimates (e.g. Burke, Schmidt, & Griffin, 2014) are lower. However, 75% of companies still rely on past performance, and 73% on current performance as their best predictors of potential (Church, Rotolo, Ginther & Levine, 2015). Many managers identify the wrong people as HiPos – this can be due to not having the right tools to carry out the task, or the fear that their talent will be moved to another area of the business (Burke, Schmidt& Griffin, 2014). It has been shown that when HiPos are not effectively assessed, 55% drop out of their program within 5 years and 46% of those HiPos promoted to new leadership roles fail to meet the organisation’s objectives. Consequently, many HiPo programs which are otherwise well-designed are ineffective because the wrong audience has been targeted.  Correctly identifying HiPos leads to well defined development needs and informs the content of development programs. Our previous article, 10 Key Considerations When Identifying High Potential, describes the what to consider in your assessment of potential, and our forthcoming article 10 Methods of Assessing Potential will describe ways you can measure potential.

Deciding on your approach to formal learning

The effectiveness of different learning and development approaches varies depending on your audience, with the prominent example of formal training being rated as less effective as the level of seniority in your audience goes up (DDI, 2014). It is therefore important to tailor your formal learning approach to the needs of the HIPOs you are developing in addition to those of your organisation.

Arrange developmental relationships

Organisations with well-designed development programs understand that development relationships contribute more to learning than the classroom (McCall, Eichinger & Lombardo, 2001). Many leading organisations provide mentoring programs where HiPos are paired with leaders within the business (Fernández-Aráoz, Groysberg, & Nohria, 2011). This practice provides exposure to broader and more complex business challenges as well as opportunities to learn from the experiences of more senior individuals in the organisation. Another form of developmental relationship used in leading organisations is coaching (Fernández-Aráoz, Groysberg, & Nohria, 2011). The nature of the coaching relationship is more focused than that of the mentor and does not necessarily involve imparting knowledge or expertise on the individual; the nature of the coaching relationship is collaborative, reflective, and goal-focused with the aim of progressing the individual’s development plan (Jones, Woods, & Guillaume, 2016; Smither, 2011). Coaching has been associated with benefits to businesses, including improved motivational outcomes, increased performance in cognitive tasks such as problem-solving, better behavioural outcomes such as skill acquisition, and superior results at the individual, team and organisational level (Jones, Woods, & Guillaume, 2016). It is therefore worthwhile to integrate these sorts of developmental relationships into your HIPO program.

Getting out of the classroom

As outlined in 10 Key Considerations for Retaining High Potentials, most learning occurs while on the job (McCall, Eichinger & Lombardo, 2001). Having HiPos solve real-world business issues provides them with opportunities to test what they have learnt in the classroom as well as come up with original solutions to novel problems. One way in which learning can be brought into the workplace is to assign stretch assignments. These are challenging tasks where your HiPos are given unfamiliar responsibilities, involve change, a higher level of responsibility, working across teams or business units, and working with diverse individuals (DeRue & Wellman, 2009). Some other ways to facilitate learning at work is through a rotation program or offering secondments to extend HiPos’ experiences beyond their current area of work.

Tidy up – ensure that culture and practices support workplace learning

It’s common to think of learning and development as occurring within an individual. This line of thought has been compared with returning a clean fish into a dirty fish tank (Meeks, Philpot & Sullivan, 2016). If you put a HiPo through a development program but do nothing to support the application of new learning in your business, then that individual is going to face an uphill battle to make any real changes. What you will lose is the return on investment in the delivery of your organisation’s strategy. To turn an individual’s newly acquired knowledge into tangible benefits, an organisation must itself learn to do things differently. These changes may mean realigning systems and practices such as performance management, rewards, succession planning and individual responsibilities (Kesler, 2002; Melum, 2002; Ready, 2004). The culture of your organisation can be an enabler or a hurdle depending on the shared norms, assumptions and language of your workplace. It is therefore important think about what barriers to applied learning exist in your organisation and how you can turn these hurdles into opportunities.

Evaluate your program

A thorough evaluation of the effectiveness of your program is an essential step in developing your HiPos. A common method of evaluating development programs is with Kirkpatrick’s four-level evaluation model, where each subsequent level looks at outcomes of increasing depth (Kirkpatrick, 1959, 2004). These levels look at the subjective reactions to the program, knowledge or skill acquisition, changes to behaviour at work, and business-level outcomes such as organisational performance. This final level is an opportunity to evaluate the return on investment in the HiPo program.

Action your evaluation and update your program

Best practice organisations act on their evaluations by recognising successes and improving on flaws (Leskiw & Singh, 2007). Rewarding the successful application of learning draws attention to the link between new behaviours and business outcomes in the minds of both the participants and management. Recognition of the successes of a HiPo program also helps build and reinforce support for the development initiative across the organisation.

Although a given program may have done the job of fulfilling an organisation’s needs, no development program is perfect. Your evaluation may have revealed shortcomings in the design and implementation of your initiative that you need to address. Changes may have also occurred over time as you tweak different aspects of the program during delivery. The circumstances within and outside your organisation may also have changed since the program was launched. The result, over time, is that is that the different components of your program no longer hang together; the narrative is no longer relevant, or that the overall design no longer meets your organisation’s needs. It is important to apply a continuous improvement mindset to you HiPo program to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of your organisation.

Bringing it all together

Research shows that HiPo programs improve organisational performance (Kelly, 2013). Leading businesses recognise the importance of developing HiPos in providing a competitive advantage and CEOs reportedly spend 20% of their time on talent-related issues, yet few organisations feel their talent pipeline is capable of filling strategic positions (Collings & Mellahi, 2009). Where many organisations fall short is in the development of their HiPos. The ten considerations outlined in this article can help you design and deliver a HiPo program which will help you stand out in your market by ensuring that your most valuable resource – your people – are empowered to write the story of your organisation’s success.


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