Mary Walter

Why invest time and energy to develop high potential employees? First, this practice provides a talent pipeline at your organization to fill leadership positions and enable company growth. Second, developing high potentials increases employee engagement, which ultimately leads to higher profits. Research from Gallup shows a strong connection between engagement and business results. Companies with the highest employee engagement have a 22% higher profitability than those in the lowest quartile. Third, developing high potentials is critical for organizational success. If you neglect this population, you risk losing your best employees. Employee commitment to your company is directly related to how committed you are to them.

I’ve seen the value of developing high-potentials firsthand. I spent 25 years leading teams in the retail industry. In my last role, I led an organization of 55,000 employees across the United States. When I first started at the company, we had to hire almost all of our open leadership positions externally because the organization failed to build an internal talent pipeline of new leaders. To address this issue, we introduced a talent development program to train high potential employees internally. The result? We achieved a high rate of internal promotions, had talent knocking down the door to get into our organization, and we increased our operating margin from 7.5% to 12.5%. Our focus on developing people paid off. We reaped significant business results and almost all of our positions were filled by terrific internal leaders.

In my new Udemy for Business course, Talent Development for Leaders: Develop Your High-Potentials, I share several strategies to help managers identify and develop high potential employees. Here is an exclusive sneak preview of the course, including tips on deciding who to mentor and what to coach them on.

Why leaders often fall short when it comes to developing high potential employees

Leaders are busy! We are often under pressure to deliver results today and to respond to the often frantic pace of business change. In my Udemy for Business course, Talent Development for Leaders: Develop Your High-Potentials, we discuss how you can’t do everything, but you can do the most important things. We look at how you can invest your time where it has the biggest impact.

Time is a big constraint both for leaders who are developing people and potential leaders who are being developed. Part of my approach is to keep it simple. Maintaining simplicity in your planning and follow-up will help ensure this work actually gets done. The biggest barrier in developing people is having enough time and investing in the right place.

Identify high potential employees to mentor

Managers only have a limited number of hours in the day, so they won’t be able to dedicate equal time to every employee on their team. I recommend focusing strategically on high potential team members, including those who are new in their roles. It’s important for managers to focus on employees who will provide the highest return on investment. These employees are the ones who are typically delivering the best results. They are also the most likely to be promoted to bigger roles in the future.

What exactly do I mean by high potential employees? These employees deliver results, often at a level head and shoulders above their peers. They demonstrate tenacity or grit, showing that they can overcome obstacles and continue through adversity. High potential employees also have the desire and ambition to grow their careers. Finally, they are open to learning. I believe this type of openness is one of the greatest leadership strengths and an accurate indicator that the leader’s time investment will pay off.

When identifying employees to focus your attention on, keep in mind that women and people of color are significantly less likely to have a mentor or a sponsor at work. In fact, women are 54% less likely to have a sponsor at work than men. This means that this group of employees may be often overlooked. Managers who look for talent where others don’t will find an untapped source of great leaders.

Determine areas of focus for leadership development

In almost any organization, moving to a higher-level role means leading people. And leading people is complex, challenging, and often counterintuitive. The first step to help managers determine leadership development areas is to reflect on your organization’s priorities.

Does your organization have defined leadership competencies? If so, this makes things much easier. These competencies are usually created to reflect the organization’s priorities. In order to prioritize everyone’s time and create the most impact on the business, managers should focus on developing the key skills most valued in the organization.

While this may seem obvious, I’ve seen leaders spend months attending Toastmaster classes at organizations that don’t value public speaking or spend time learning accounting when their company has a full accounting team at the manager’s disposal. That’s why it’s critical for managers to review your company’s leadership competency model, if one exists.

If your company doesn’t have a model, in my course, I suggest some key leadership skills that managers should develop in their high potential employees.  

Keep it simple with one or two competencies

Another tip to help guide development work is to keep it simple. The best development plans are simple, clear, and easy to understand. Sometimes as leaders, we feel we have to articulate our plans in a complex way to demonstrate our intelligence and our depth of understanding. With leadership development, that tendency can backfire. If plans and terms are too complex, people will forget or misunderstand. Managers can ensure their employees’ success by keeping it simple and easy. If your organization is like every other organization I’ve worked with, leaders feel pressed for time and often have far too much to do. If leadership development is complicated, employees will procrastinate that work in favor of tasks due that day—as will the managers who are overseeing them.

I recommend choosing one or two competencies to develop. Employees have a lot of work to do. Focusing on just one area for growth will frame development as something achievable, and will ensure this work can be completed within the context of the rest of their priorities.

A narrow focus also allows employees to experience success. The path to success is one of focused attention, leading to improvement. Managers can then acknowledge that improvement, helping increase employee confidence in their ability to grow. They can then move on to the next opportunity, creating a culture of continuous learning and growth.

Finally, organizations should focus consistently on employee development. It should be treated just like any other business opportunity or project with follow-up dates, check-ins, and metrics. This kind of structure is the only way to really make a difference in an individual employee’s development and the organization’s talent pool.

The work you do developing leaders will pay off in results, increased loyalty from your team, and the joy of creating success. Learn more about developing high potential employees in my Udemy for Business course, Talent Development for Leaders: Develop Your High-Potentials.

Page Last Updated: March 2020

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