Some dilemmas in the selection & development of high-potential talent

Change Management, HR Management, Project work Russia & East Europe, Talent Management | 0 comments

In the last few years I’ve been involved with setting up high-potential identification programmes in a number of companies, both in ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries.

Recently we held a workshop in Paris for a client who wanted to review best practices, to help decide what decisions to make in their preparation of managerial talent, as they called it. And I shared information about three groups: well-respected companies who have been involved in this form of talent management for years; similar pan-European governmental companies like my client; and some companies I’ve worked with recently to introduce such practices.

I’ve mentioned the good and the bad about ‘best practices’ before. Just copying from other companies should be done at your peril, and talent is one of these areas. It is context dependent, situation dependent and depends on your organizational history and culture.

But let me share some of the decision points and dilemmas one should take into account when initiating these types of programmes, as I discussed in the workshop. However much people want to jump to leadership development training, there are lots of other steps to take before embarking on that relatively easy stage!


  1. Establishment of clear strategic priorities

(High) Potential is context dependent, situation dependent and depends on your organizational culture. The future business strategy & vision defines future leadership demands. Only then will you know what you are identifying & developing people for. This is the place to start.

  1. Definition of criteria for selection

A classic confusion is that high performance must equal high potential. It is a start but it is also important to recognise how people got results not just the results themselves in addition to other aspects. There are many models of potential but all seem to have four basic traits:

  • Motivation (the drive/desire to have positive impact on other people);
  • Leadership assets (learning agility, insight, smart, engages others, seeks understanding);
  • Identity/character (see themselves there, accept the costs, have the right DNA for the company); and
  • Skills/knowledge/experience (what they know and can do, track record of success in different areas).

A common definition of potential that everyone knows is crucial for success. If the selection criteria are confusing, employees will be mystified as to why some people are included or excluded and managers will lose confidence in the programme.

  1. Select with care: who gets to choose and how?

Once the criteria for the assessment of potential are clear you should select with care but again there are different possibilities.

  • No selection for example: everyone is a potential future talent and all have development opportunities. But this can be expensive and wasteful, trying to be fair at the expense of being strategic.
  • Self-selection is also possible: the individual puts themselves forward for assessment (motivation!) Here there is obviously the risk of people over-estimating their own qualities and missing people you want on the programmes.
  • Line management input is the basis for many companies at least as an initial list, based on criteria, succession coverage, values, leadership competence and performance.
  • Assessment tools: Many companies starting high-potential selection, use tools in addition to line management recommendation. They should be objective, valid and there are lots of possibilities (competence-based interviews, assessment/development centres, psychometric online tests, leadership style assessment, motivation, problem solving, learning agility)
  1. Do people know they are future talent?
  • Yes: For some companies this can be a real dilemma. It may seem obvious that people should know, open communication, as it is motivating, it says the company values them and wants them to stay, and top talent will be more patient to wait and develop. It is also a check, because not everyone may want to be chosen (motivation). But it does run the risk of demotivating solid contributors who are not picked (the majority). And therefore needs a performance & feedback culture to work.
  • No: About half the companies do not inform people because they do not want to take the risk of differentiation or do not feel able to make promises about the future (or indeed don’t have any real criteria in place!) But this also has a risk of high-potentials then looking for other jobs as they know they are good but don’t know they have been identified.
  1. Do people stay ‘talent’ forever?

Usually not, because otherwise it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, regardless of performance. But if not, there has to be a process and people who were selected and are no longer so, need to be managed. In the workshop we used lots of company examples for all of these decisions and dilemmas which I have not done in this blog, but one example here is Shell’s CEP: this stands for ‘currently estimated potential’ whereby everyone knows that their potential can change both upwards and downwards.

  1. Are there degrees of potential?
  • Start at the top? Some companies when introducing such a system start at the top of the company. Who are the people just below the top of the company with the ability to get to the top. Late-stage HiPos: experienced but ready for top executive roles. And then move further down the organization as the company gains experience.
  • Early-stage? Some though look at early-stage HiPos: who are the recent recruits, maybe 2-4 years in the company with the potential to get much further.
  • How far in the future? Some companies look at the ability to move 1 or 2 stages higher within a given timeframe in the organization (so more dependent on current level), whereas others look at the potential to get to the top, and may therefore assess everyone’s potential. Whereas others will just assess specific chosen groups.

Lots of possible approaches, some of which may raise the risk of managers confusing readiness for promotion with potential.

  1. Best practice development
  • In theory if all the other steps have been followed this should be easier, although there are still decision points and dilemmas. Is development the same for everyone (through standard courses) or individually tailored, for example? Training could be corporate, open programmes, business schools or even MBAs. Development centres can be used where candidates are assessed against higher levels leading to more individual development programmes. Feedback from managers, mentoring & coaching can all be used.
  • Best practice also suggests that high-potentials learn more when stretched slightly beyond their limit and given feedback. New experiences, experimentation: talented people learn from mistakes not successes. So either to create experiential learning, failing in a controlled setting, stretching to where failure is an option, or giving people stretch roles, to reinforce their aspiration/motivation, ability & engagement.
  • Almost all best practice companies also use job rotation in line with strategic goals as a developmental tool (or special assignments, projects, secondments). Although this risks losing top performers from the company’s immediate needs to development opportunities. Which was a definite issue for our client at this workshop.
  • Two other best practices are that top leadership and key executive stakeholders need to be actively involved (through lecturing for example). Access to senior management, visibility in the organization, a high profile, are all motivators for high-potentials. Second the programme must be consistent. Those chosen must feel it is worthwhile, that it is credible, trustworthy and structured. For example, succession in leadership positions must be chosen and filled from this top pool, not elsewhere. Otherwise the credibility of the programme is lost. Another reason for involving top leaders closely in top talent development.
  1. Worst practice development

There are lots of things not to do. One is putting people on high-potential lists or programmes for the wrong reasons.

  • Retention: to keep high performers or rare skills
  • Remediation: substitute for performance issue confrontation (they will hear about it from the assessment not the line manager)
  • Reward: motivator rather than real selection
  • Reluctance: to distinguish on performance and potential, a ‘democratic’ approach which is actually an abrogation of responsibility.
  1. Governance

Best practice is fairly aligned on this.

  • Top line management should be ‘the owner’
  • Multiple panels of leaders take part
  • Talent Process often owned by senior (HR) figure
  • Business HR facilitates


So there are lots of forms of best practices and many dilemmas that need to be solved and decisions that need to be taken, some of which I have outlined above. But just copying from other companies is not the total answer. Your organisation’s best future talent identification and development programme will be context dependent, situation dependent, depend on your organizational history and culture, and most importantly depend on your future business strategy & vision, which defines your future leadership demands.

If you have any questions or want more information or advice please feel free to contact me.


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