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The diamond in the rough: Developing high potential employees

July 9, 2020
By Brian Kreissl

Photo: Joe Belanger/Getty Images

Last week, I discussed the concept of “bench strength” in organizations – particularly with respect to employees designated as top talent for the purposes of succession planning and other talent management programs. This is an important concept because organizations need a reliable source of talent ready to fill vacancies for key and senior leadership roles in the relatively near future.

But if someone has never had a senior leadership role, there are obviously going to be skills, competencies and knowledge that are missing. While someone may be a high potential employee (all things being equal, potential counts for more than performance when assessing top talent), they are still likely to be a diamond in the rough and may not be quite ready to hit the ground running once appointed to an executive role.

Leadership development programs can help a great deal to narrow the gap of readiness, but it is a mistake to take a one-size fits all approach to developing future leaders. In other words, there is tremendous value in designing customized learning and development interventions targeting the needs of each individual employee.

This is often accomplished by creating an individual development plan (IDP) for each high-potential employee. The idea is for senior business leaders and HR to determine where the gaps are in each individual’s knowledge, skills and competencies and determine some of the learning and developmental activities to be undertaken in order to address those gaps.


Those activities could include coaching, mentoring, specific training, e-learning, secondments, temporary assignments, project experience, lateral moves, external courses and other types of learning programs.

The most important concept here is that the learning must be targeted and bespoke for the individual concerned.

In many ways, this is similar to career planning and development conversations every manager should be having with their direct reports on a regular basis.

However, I also believe there is value in creating cohort-based programs that develop high potential employees’ skills and competencies simultaneously with other employees at a similar level. One of the advantages of such programs is they allow participants to learn from one another. They also allow for individual reflection, which is particularly important given that everyone’s experience is likely to be quite different.

Leadership development programs and action learning

This type of learning is characteristic of leadership development programs. While some of these programs focus on new and aspiring leaders, others are targeted to experienced leaders who are ready to move into the next level of leaders. Many, but not all, of the individuals chosen for such programs are likely to be high potential employees.

Many of the features of leadership development programs are similar to the types of learning activities documented in an IDP. In addition to online and classroom training, there will generally be some type of on-the-job learning, coaching, mentoring, feedback and exercises completed by learners.

One type of learning activity common in many leadership development programs is action learning.

This is a type of learning where participants solve real life organizational problems through problem solving. The hands-on learning component is generally supplemented with programmed instruction where a facilitator provides background information and instructions on how to complete the tasks.

While action learning can be used as a technique for organizational problem solving, the focus is generally on the learning itself as opposed to the issue or problem at hand. Questioning and working together to solve problems are important features of action learning.

There is usually some coaching and facilitation from program leaders and reflection from participants. Action learning can help facilitate improved knowledge of the organization, enhanced leadership skills and improved innovation and flexibility.

Other common elements of leadership development programs include team-building exercises, volunteer projects, simulations, reading assignments, discussions, debates, guest speakers, speeches and presentations. Some organizations may also sponsor a small number of high potential employees for an executive or other type of MBA program.

Retaining and engaging high potential employees

Regardless of which approaches your organization takes in developing high potential employees, it is important to ensure these individuals remain positive and engaged. Because they are likely to become your organization’s senior leaders in the future, it is important to ensure there are meaningful opportunities for them to learn, grow and develop in their careers.

While building bench strength is an important consideration, that is insufficient. Merely developing high potential individuals and never using those talents is a waste of resources and is likely to result in disillusionment, disengagement and turnover.

Brian Kreissl is a product development manager with Thomson Reuters in Toronto. He looks after HR, payroll, OH&S, records retention and Triform. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com or (416) 609-5886.

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